How One Funder is Aiming to Change Disciplinary Policies in Brooklyn Schools

The Brooklyn Community Foundation (BCF) was recently singled out for an Impact Award by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which praised it for it's deep community engagement. 

Typically for this outfit, it's embracing an idea that doesn’t get a lot of attention from grantmakers: restorative justice. If you’re like many people, you’re probably wondering what exactly restorative justice is.

BCF defines it as "a philosophy and practice that empowers all affected by an incident—including victims, offenders, and their supporters—to decide collectively how to reconcile and repair harm." This approach stands in contrast to a top-down punitive approach to justice that can leave a lot of collateral damage in its wake. And it's particularly well-suited to incidents that involve kids in school, during a phase of life when they should be learning and growing—not being sucked into what critics call a "school-to-prison" pipeline, thanks to harsh zero-tolerance disciplinary policies. 

According to recent statistics, black and Hispanic students make up 70 percent of the school population in Brooklyn, yet over 90 percent of all suspensions. And this isn’t exclusively a race issue either. Special needs students make up about 12 percent of the population in Brooklyn schools; however, they account for between 33 percent and 90 percent of total suspensions.

So what’s BCF hoping to do about all this?

The foundation recently partnered with the NYC Department of Education and Mayor’s Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline for School-based Disciplinary Reform Initiative to develop a new pilot program in four Brooklyn middle and high schools. This support will extend for the next four years, with the hopes of expanding to the rest of New York City later. The goal is to change how kids are disciplined by teachers and administrators in schools and to reduce the number of student suspensions, arrests, and violent episodes.

The nonprofit program that BCF chooses will succeed if reports show that attendance rates, percentage of passing grades, and credit accumulation totals increase. Any changes in violent in-school conflicts will be noted too.

BCF President Cecilia Clarke said,

We know that suspensions don’t just take children out of the classroom temporarily—they often factor into students dropping out of school or getting involved in the criminal justice system, especially among young people of color. We want schools to be safe and supportive environments for all students. Restorative justice is about reducing conflict, building community, and showing our students that they are valuable assets and agents in their schools and neighborhoods.

Starting in September 2015, these Brooklyn schools will be the first restorative justice test subjects: Science Skills Center High School in Downtown Brooklyn, Ebbets Field Middle School in Crown Heights, the School for Democracy and Leadership in East Flatbush, and the Rachel Carson High School for Coastal Studies in Coney Island. Accordingly, there’s an opportunity here for four local nonprofit organizations with experience in this field to develop innovative restorative justice models. Selected nonprofits will need to send a full-time restorative justice coordinator to each of these four schools to get the ball rolling.

Check the BCF website for details about the competitive RFP process. But do it quickly, because the RFP deadline for this pilot program is July 14.

And for some general tips, check out our post, What the Brooklyn Community Foundation is Looking for in Grantees, to learn more about BCF grantmaking.

Related: Why This Local Brooklyn Funder is Getting National Praise