The city may cut more than $20 million from restorative justice programs, which hold students accountable when they cause harm without suspending or arresting them, Department of Education employees tell Gothamist.

News of potential budget cuts came to light after more than 60 organizations sent an open letter to Mayor Eric Adams and Chancellor David Banks over the weekend, urging them to maintain the restorative justice funding. An email sent to some DOE employees and obtained by Gothamist shows the department has advised them that it is embarking on an “internal reorganization” and that they will be reassigned to new positions.

“We need more transparency and we also need for teachers, for parents, for youth, for school leaders to be involved in the conversation,” said Gabriella Mucilli, a teacher in the Bronx who has also helped her school implement restorative justice practices. “Folks and stakeholders are not involved in the dialogue and that’s really frustrating.”

The DOE told Gothamist that the Office of Safety and Youth Development, which ran the department’s restorative justice program, has been folded into a new division but did not provide further details. The mayor’s office referred all questions to the DOE.

“Our commitment to supporting the physical and mental health and well-being of our students is unwavering. Our public schools have come a long way from leaning on punitive policies in our classrooms,” a DOE spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “We are still in the process of setting priorities for the upcoming year and look forward to sharing more in the coming weeks.”

The de Blasio administration committed to expanding restorative justice programs to every public middle and high school in 2019, after a pilot program in District 18 coincided with double-digit drops in suspensions. The city has earmarked both local and federal COVID-19 relief funds to grow the program through the next few years, according to a 2021 report from the Independent Budget Office.

About $21.6 million for restorative justice programs has been allocated in the budget for the new fiscal year. But the education department, which has discretion to shift the funds elsewhere according to the IBO, would not confirm to Gothamist whether it would honor that budget line. Banks has hinted at plans for a new school safety program, but his department declined to share more information for now.

Restorative justice helps students and staff work through disagreements with guidance from a trained facilitator. Schools across the country have adopted the practice as more and more research has exposed the repercussions of punitive discipline – like suspension and arrests – and its disproportionate effects on students of color. While studies have not yet definitively determined whether restorative justice decreases conflict or suspensions, early research has uncovered multiple positive outcomes, including strengthened relationships among students and staff.

The mayor has made public safety a priority for his administration and frequently notes the importance of initiatives that can prevent young people from committing crimes, such as summer jobs and dyslexia screenings. Restorative justice advocates see the philosophy as another essential tool to keep schools safe and help students learn how to resolve conflicts peacefully.

But the term is not mentioned in Adams’ Blueprint to End Gun Violence. And as the school year approaches, fears are swirling among teachers, students, and others who help provide restorative justice programming in city schools that a yearslong effort to shift toward restorative practices and away from punitive discipline could be blunted by the new administration.

“It’s been especially hard to hear this news,” said Caitlin Delphin, a special education teacher who also leads restorative justice circles at a high school in Brooklyn.

Delphin said last year was difficult due to COVID outbreaks and school closures. This year, she was hoping to focus on learning and building relationships between students and staff.

“To hear that we’re already in kind of, like, a precarious position in terms of re-establishing all of this, and then to hear that the budget is being cut is just another blow,” she said.

Restorative justice programming varies from school to school. Some buildings have yet to adopt the practice at all, while others integrated it into their day-to-day operations years ago. As funding from the department has increased over time, schools have been able to apply for grants to train their teachers in restorative practices and compensate students who spend time outside of class facilitating circles or doing research. The department has also hired restorative justice coordinators who work with multiple schools to support students and staff and help run programs.

Oliver Cannell, who teaches seventh grade English as a second language and helps with restorative justice programming at M.S. 839 in Brooklyn, worries funding cuts would put even more pressure on teachers, who are already stretched thin. He said his school increased its use of restorative practices before the pandemic, and the environment felt safer as a result. But as teachers have taken on more responsibilities in response to COVID and slashed positions, he worries the program won’t have the resources or staff capacity it needs to succeed.

“Something that I would be asking for more of and that I think all schools should have is not just trainings but ongoing active support from the DOE – coaching, having somebody that I could call as a restorative justice coordinator to help work through difficult situations and connect with other restorative justice coordinators,” Cannell said. “It’s frustrating to see the funding go in the other direction.”

Amber Colon, 17, has watched friendships transform through restorative justice. The rising junior at Harvest Collegiate High School once facilitated a circle with two best friends who were struggling to make amends after one used a racial slur. Tears were shed and the friends talked over each other at times, she said. But Colon reminded them of the ground rules and helped them to stay on track.

“They both listened to each other, and then we just found a way to fix the community and the person that was harmed by this word,” she said. “After a couple conversations and everyone talking out their feelings, it got fixed.”

If funding is cut as feared, it is unclear whether schools will have the resources they need to run these programs come fall. They will likely carry on in some schools regardless of dedicated funding from the department, though perhaps on a smaller scale or with less formal training.

At a recent community safety discussion in the Bronx, Banks hinted at a new school safety program he plans to launch in the coming year, which he said would bring in credible messengers – trusted community members who work to prevent violence – from over 100 organizations across the city.

“We’re going to put some dollars behind this, and we’re going to put them out there on the front lines with our kids,” Banks said at the meeting. “They can’t save everybody, but every one of these schools got 10 kids in there that, if you could help them, you could transform the whole school.”

The department told Gothamist it would be sharing more details on the initiative soon, but said it was separate from restorative justice programming.