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After years in law enforcement, Robert Rico became an advocate of non-punitive approaches.

Public Policy

UTSA Lecturer Reduces Suspensions by 84 Percent

Pilot project brings “restorative discipline” approach to Ed White Middle School

A quote attributed to Victor Hugo says, “He who opens a school door closes a prison.” Looking at the disproportionate number of school dropouts among America‘s inmates, the French writer’s words seem as relevant as ever, even 130 years after his passing.

The so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” examined by several studies, sees a direct link between school dropout rates and incarceration. The nonprofit Texas Appleseed, for instance, reported that every third youth in a Texan lock-down facility has already dropped out of school. More than 80 percent of Texas adult prison inmates are school dropouts. Yet, each year thousands and thousands of high school students face disciplinary charges increasing their likelihood of future detainment. According to a growing number of experts, many of these charges could be prevented.

“Schools are mirroring the punitive, zero-tolerance policies of our justice system,” says Robert Rico, a lecturer in the Department of Criminal Justice in the UTSA College of Public Policy. “But the mere fact that our country has the highest incarceration rate in the world proves that our system is failing.”

Rico knows what he’s talking about. Growing up in a rough neighborhood on San Antonio’s West Side, he successfully wrestled his way through high school and went on to become a police officer. During his many years in law enforcement, however, he frequently found himself questioning his own path, contemplating ways to help more people.

In 2001, when Rico started his master’s in public administration at UTSA, he was inspired by the work of UTSA faculty members John Byrd and Michael Gilbert, who were spearheading the fairly young movement of “restorative justice” in San Antonio. This prevention-oriented approach fosters consensus-based decisions to resolve conflicts – conversing instead of penalizing. Rico was hooked and started a restorative justice program with the Boerne Police Department.

“Instead of just punishing the offender, restorative justice puts emphasis on the victim,” he explains. “It’s about repairing the harms created by getting all parties involved and starting a dialogue.”

When John Byrd died in 2008 after a brief and severe illness, Rico joined forces with Gilbert to continue Byrd’s pioneering work. Gilbert, a criminal justice professor at UTSA, serves as executive director of the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice and director of the Office of Community and Restorative Justice within the UTSA Policy Studies Center.

Rico retired from law enforcement to pursue a career in academia at UTSA.In 2012, he initiated a pilot project at San Antonio’s Edward H. White Middle School based on restorative discipline which applies restorative justice principles in a school setting. Aiming to reduce Ed White’s discipline rates, which are among the highest in the district, sixth-grade teachers were trained during the summer before putting restorative discipline methods into practice for the 2012-2013 school year. The first results are dramatic: In addition to an 84 percent drop in off-campus suspensions (whereby a student is prohibited from being on the premises for a specified length of time), total suspensions declined by 44 percent.

The new approach does not eliminate student conflict, it helps them work through it with their teachers, who now respond to student misbehavior in a different way. Marilyn Armour, a professor at the UT Austin School of Social Work and director of the Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue, oversees the three-year research project at Ed White. She explains, “When a student misbehaves, instead of saying ‘go to the office,’ it's about stopping and engaging with that student in a meaningful way. It’s time-consuming, but it's about investing in the creation of a different kind of climate that pays dividends when times get tough.”

One key method teachers are implementing at Ed White is restorative circles led by an adult facilitator. These circles search for a consensus-based solution, creating a setting for conflicting students that puts emphasis on mutual respect and deep listening. If agreed upon, the solution is then written in a binding document that all circle participants sign and promise to uphold.

“The truth of the matter is that children want to be heard,” says Rico. “Traditional disciplinary measures aren’t conducive to that. Restorative circles give children the chance to feel equal and express themselves to their peers and teachers. In turn, teachers can deepen or restore the teacher-student relationship into a level of mutual respect and understanding.”

While a high turnover in teaching staff and some teacher resistance to the new approach contributed toward inconsistencies, Rico noted that even with these challenges Ed White Middle School made “sturdy and noteworthy progress in its first year, and the lessons learned will be invaluable when we extend the program.” Seventh- and eighth-grade teachers are up next in the training schedule with the goal of having all teachers trained by 2014-2015, the final year of the project.

“It’s a no-brainer, if you think about it,” says Rico. “Restorative discipline shows the highest rates of victim satisfaction and offender accountability, making it a very efficient way to lower dropout rates.” Or, in other words: He who keeps a student in school, closes a prison door.


–Jesus Chavez and Jean Luc Mette