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Making the grade: Mason alumnus helps students avoid suspensions and excel

July 24, 2019   /   by Mariam Aburdeineh

Sarah Parshall, who earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from Mason's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, is a restorative justice specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools. Photo by Lathan Goumas.

School suspensions can triple the probability that a student will drop out of school or have later involvement with the criminal justice system, according to studies linked to the school-to-prison pipeline. These statistics are concerning, but Sarah Parshall has hope.

Parshall, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR) in 2013 and 2015, respectively, works as a restorative justice specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). For more than a year, she has witnessed firsthand how an alternative approach to punitive discipline can transform communities.

“The root of restorative justice is relationship building and restoring what was broken,” Parshall said. “Our work is responding to harm, and allowing students to learn from their mistakes and give them second chances.”

For conflicts—such as fights, theft and vandalism—that have escalated to the point where a suspension or disciplinary referral would normally occur, an FCPS restorative justice practitioner can step in to facilitate.

The process centers around the restorative justice circle, where an offending student and those impacted sit face-to-face. In the circle, the student takes accountability for his or her actions.

A restorative justice facilitator, such as Parshall, guides the group to reflect on what happened and how it impacted each person, and helps create an agreement on how to make things right, which could include apologies, community service or other repairs.

“[The] community element allows people to see the humanity in each other,” Parshall said, adding that it also saves a student from having a suspension on their record, which could have adverse effects later on.

Most school administrators report that students who have gone through the restorative justice process are not repeat offenders, Parshall said, citing a recidivism rate of just 10 percent.

Mason is where Parshall said she found her passion for restorative justice.

After watching the documentary “Fixing Juvie Justice” and seeing the results of restorative justice, Parshall said she “fell in love with the idea that this could really affect change in the world.”

Parshall said she was inspired by Mason professor Arthur Romano’s enthusiasm for the subject, and his engaging teaching style that incorporates in-class simulations. She said she also appreciated Mason professor Susan Hirsch’s helpfulness in connecting her to others doing restorative justice work.

“What you’ll find a lot in S-CAR is that if you’re interested in something, you’ll have people there who will really help you pursue your passion,” Parshall said.

Experiences outside the classroom also formed Parshall’s education and helped her put the theories she learned into practice. She was a resident advisor at Mason and served on staffs of two international youth peacebuilding programs for high schoolers from the United States, Indonesia and Central Asian countries.

While at Mason, Parshall also interviewed school-based restorative justice expert and pioneer Vickie Shoap for a class paper. That connection led to an internship as a restorative justice intern with FCPS, which later led to her full-time position.

“Sarah is deeply committed, so I think her students and colleagues must benefit from that depth of caring,” Romano said. “She can have hard conversations and can listen deeply.”