What have I learned?

I always knew I wanted to be a criminal defense attorney. From the time I was ten years old, I had formed a habit of saying, “I want to be a lawyer because I love to argue.” Of course, as I grew older, my love for arguing became one of many passions that prompted my desire to be an attorney. The problems facing urban youth first came to my attention when my mom came home from going to the hair-dresser and told me a story. She described to me how her hair-dresser was working as a teacher many years ago and had a student that was always coming to class late. One day, she pulled the student aside and asked why he was always late to class. He simply told her that every morning he would have to make sure his little sister got dressed and ready for school before getting himself ready. Meanwhile, his mother would always be passed out from her nightly outings at the bar. Little did my mom know that this story would inspire a whirlwind of emotions inside of me. What if, instead of the teacher asking him why he was always late to class, she simply suspended him? At this point in my life, I had no idea what the solution to this problem was. I had no idea how I, as a fifteen-year-old girl from Colorado Springs, could fix this issue.

When I came to Bowdoin and enrolled in Urban Education and Community Organizing, only then did I begin to realize that I was not the only one who pondered this issue. When I first heard the term “restorative justice”, my eyes lit up. I wanted to know more. My small bubble of a community in Colorado had never exposed me to this concept. Naturally, I chose to focus on restorative justice for this project, as I wanted to continue to embark on the details of this method. The most shocking thing to me after finishing this project is how many organizations have targeted this issue. The amount of schools that have started implementing restorative justice is astounding, and the amount of research tied to its implementation is even more exciting to me. One thing that stood out to me was the idea that restorative justice should be viewed as a philosophy rather than a curriculum. In other words, for restorative justice to be as successful as possible, it needs to be integrated into the culture of the school, rather than seen as an option as one of the ways students can be disciplined. It is necessary that teachers and other staff take the necessary time to truly absorb the philosophy of restorative justice and go through the necessary training to learn what these techniques will entail. From my research through this project, my opinion is that this excess time is worth it. The drastic declines in suspension rates and more importantly, the change in the culture of the schools represent how big of an impact restorative justice can make.

Another surprise to me was how far restorative justice has come along in schools in Denver, Colorado, which is just an hour from my home in Colorado Springs. I was completely unaware that schools in Denver were some of the first to start trying out restorative justice programs, which, of course, makes me proud to be a Coloradan. Along with this, I learned that the University of Denver has partnered with grassroots organizations in Denver to target continuing issues facing Denver Public Schools. This stood out to me because this shows how much community effort there is working to improve the education system. The community of Denver has been able to partner with a PRIVATE university to implement restorative justice techniques, which proves how big of an impact a community can have in solving issues that the members are facing.

As I continue my pursuit of a law degree, there are still questions that I ponder about restorative justice. Because restorative justice has succeeded in reducing suspension rates and reducing the school-to-prison pipeline, why has it not been implemented in other areas? Ultimately, I still want to be a criminal defense attorney. However, knowing what I know now, it will be incredibly difficult to see young members of urban communities face harsh sentences when who knows what they are going through? The most significant take-away from this project for me is the fact that I want to be involved with the process of continuing restorative justice, not only in classrooms but also in the justice system.