With last Saturday’s Multicultural Education Conference came talks about a variety of cultural and ethnic concerns, with many speakers focusing on the academic careers of minorities in the US, and the challenges they face. One such speaker, psychologist Melissa Holland, explained to her audience at the University of California, Sacramento audience the “achievement gap” between minority and non-minority students across the country, as well as the notorious “school to prison pipeline.”

Citing a disparity of dropout rates between, black, Hispanic, and white high school students, Holland sought to explain the causes of such imbalances. She also gave some solutions put together by her own students, who designed teacher curriculums for their thesis projects.

A major source of inequality in the classroom she identified was the use of “exclusionary discipline,” which is a form of discipline that removes a student from the classroom. Detention, suspension, and expulsion are all punishments that Holland views as counterproductive, because they take away that student’s opportunity to learn.

Her students outlined a series of sessions as part of a “group curriculum.” These sessions include a class just for teachers to take the time to reflect on their own cultural awareness and biases, as well as group activities for students and instructors to better understand each other and their goals.

In another session, students would be asked to take the free VIA Strength Assessment to determine their strengths and how to use them to their advantage in class.

In addition, a common theme among discussions on at-risk youth is the need to have a caring adult figure, which Holland echoed in her discussion.

“It doesn’t have to be a parent, or a guardian,” she explained. “It can be a counselor. It can be a school psychologist. It can be someone who that child has semi-regular contact with who is a caring, consistent adult, and we can provide that for them.”

Another major topic addressed was the harm being done to by what is called punitive justice. This form of justice focuses on three issues: what law or rule was broken, who broke it, and what their punishment should be. According to Holland, this approach is all wrong. Instead, she hopes to make the switch to what is called restorative justice, which instead “maximizes student involvement” in “repairing the damage that has been done.”

Instead of conventional discipline, restorative discipline seeks to identify what harm was done and to who, what the needs of are of the people or things involved, and who is responsible to make that those needs are met and justice is restored.

If a student has been suspended or expelled, “reintegration” is the key to rebuilding relationships in the classroom, according to Holland. She goes on to cite Oakland School District as an example of restorative justice in action.

If other districts were to follow Oakland’s model, Holland, her graduate students, and many others in the field believe that it would help minority high school students make it to graduation day, which would in turn help their communities.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.