Juvenile Diversion’s restorative justice ‘largely positive,’ facilitator says

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 Lauren Trout (center), restorative justice facilitator for the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office and Jefferson Parish Public School System, discusses the program for an audience gathered in New Orleans for “Rethink Discipline.” At the left is Kimbrielle Boult, a student, and at right is Lynette Adams of the Louisiana Supreme Court.  (JPDA photo)

Although concrete data is not yet available, the restorative justice approach to resolving disputes among participants in the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office Pre-Trial Juvenile Diversion program is seeing successes, a program facilitator says.

During its first year of use in Juvenile Diversion, about 260 people have voluntarily used the restorative justice process as a means of resolving conflicts and undoing the harm the youths’ behavior caused, said Lauren Trout, a restorative practices facilitator working for the District Attorney’s Office and the Jefferson Parish Public School System.

“The outcomes and responses have been largely positive,” Trout told about 50 educators, school administrators, students and representatives of community groups from as far as Jackson, Miss., who are gathering in New Orleans this week for a regional conference called “Rethink Discipline.” Trout was among the speakers on Tuesday (June 7).

The participants convened to discuss and share ideas on finding alternatives to suspending or expelling students who cause disciplinary problems in public schools. Restorative justice, one of this week’s topics, is a method school officials began using nationwide during the past decade, as a means of trying to keep youths in school and out of criminal justice systems.

Trout is helping bring restorative practices to Jefferson Parish’s 81 public schools. Through restorative practices, the youths who cause the problem must confront their behaviors by sitting face-to-face with the people they’ve harmed in what’s called “talking circles.”

And in the schools setting, the often-used means of meting discipline, through expulsions, suspensions and even arrests, doesn’t solve the underlying problems. “We know suspending and expelling young people doesn’t resolve the conflict,” Trout said, as the offending youths eventually return to the classrooms.

The Jefferson Parish DA’s Office and public school system began working together during the 2014-2015 academic year through a cooperative endeavor to bring restorative practices to the schools. Jefferson’s program, along with those in Caddo and Orleans parishes, is funded the program with U.S. Education Department School Climate Transformation Grants.

Jefferson Parish Juvenile Court judges began looking at restorative justice in 2011, through its Families in Need of Services program. Over time, District Attorney Paul D. Connick Jr., authorized his office to implement the program through the Pre-Trial Juvenile Diversion Program, using grant money from the Baptist Community Ministries Foundation.

In Juvenile Diversion, restorative justice is used in cases involving fights, thefts from persons, property destruction, assaults and batteries. Youths involved with narcotics, inter-family incidents and thefts from the large chain stores aren’t allowed access to restorative justice.

Jefferson Parish’s youths were only able to access restorative justice after they entered the juvenile criminal justice system, Trout said. That’s why the program was extended to the public schools through the collaboration with the DA’s office, she said.

She said she’s seen successes and barriers to implementing the program in the public schools in its first year. “Real change, and systemic change in particular, is really slow,” she said of the barriers. “It takes time to work efficiently across so many systems.”

She sees the collaboration between the school system and criminal justice system as a success, and restorative practices is now in the school system’s disciplinary policies handbook.

While concrete data isn’t available, Trout cited as an example of success a public school, which she did not identify, that had a high rate of arrests among its students. The school then included on its staff a part-time restorative practices facilitator.

“There has definitely been a reduction in out-of-school suspensions,” Trout told the audience.

Educators, school administrators, students and community groups representatives from Louisiana and parts of Mississippi are gathering in New Orleans this week for “Rethink Discipline,” a conference designed to address means of disciplining youths other than suspending them, expelling them or even jailing them. Speakers include Lauren Trout, a restorative practices facilitator working for the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office and the Jefferson Parish Public Schools System. Among those attending on Tuesday was Erin Valls, project grant manager for the Jefferson Parish Public School System. (JPDA Photos)

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