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Rethinking disciplinary strategies in WNY

The progress in restorative justice practices in Western New York (WNY) is a model for the rest of the country, according to Tom Cavanagh, Ph. D., at a regional meeting of 180 professionals on June 7. Attendees, representing education and the justice system, from Orleans, Niagara, Erie, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and Allegany counties convened at Erie 1 BOCES in West Seneca to share successful strategies that rethink the discipline of juveniles.

“I speak across the county about what you are doing in this region,” said Cavanagh, president of Restorative Justice Education. “In this morning’s USA Today was an article about suspension rates across the country… it is very relevant why we are here today.”

Nationally, information is being shared with educators on how chronic absenteeism increases the risk for academic failure and dropping out. In addition, professionals within the justice system are seeking new approaches to handle youth behavior in a way that reduces harmful patterns and promotes positive youth development.

“Youth usually come out worse than when they went in,” said Brian McLaughlin, commissioner for Erie County Department of Probation, when speaking about detaining teens.

Lori DeCarlo, superintendent of Randolph Academy who agreed with McLaughlin’s sentiments, wanted to close the gaps that were identified by NYS Office of Juvenile Justice. Since funding was not in place for such efforts, she took the lead in applying for a grant to support restorative justice practices in WNY.

After the grant was awarded from NYS Department of Criminal Justice Services in August 2015, professionals at Cattaraugus-Allegany BOCES, Erie 1 BOCES, Erie 2 Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES and Orleans/Niagara BOCES began “train the trainer” sessions to build a sustainable program for 100 school districts in the region. 

A focus on owning mistakes, empathy and taking steps to remedy the misdeed are key elements to restorative justice practices.

“Punishment without transformation is pointless,” said William Keresztes, Ph. D., chief of government affairs, planning and community engagement for Buffalo Public Schools. “You’ll have to reeducate everyone…and give hope that things really can be different.”

Following this informational session, more in-depth trainings will be offered to districts interested in pursuing school-based approaches to restorative justice.

“I am glad to live in a time when we can all be part of the same cause and mission, to build a culture of care in our schools,” said Timothy Cox, assistant superintendent for Instructional Support Services Programs at Cattaraugus-Allegany BOCES.