RENO, Nev. — “Namaste,” author Azim Khamisa, greeted STN EXPO Reno attendees as he took the stage on Tuesday morning to commence his presentation, “Making Peace On the School Bus Through Restorative Practices.”
He shared his story, which started almost 28 years when his only son, 20-year-old Tariq, was murdered by a 14-year-old gang member while delivering a pizza in San Diego, California.
Tony Hicks, the child who killed Tariq, became the youngest child to stand trial as an adult in the state of California and received a 25-year prison sentence. The case inspired Khamisa to not only create a foundation in his son’s honor but also teach non-violence to youth and restorative justice to schools and prisons. It’s a lesson that student transporters also need to learn.
“No child is born violent,” he said. “Violence is learned, which means that non-violence can also be taught.”
Khamisa walked the audience through his process of how he found peace with Hicks. Up until the murder of his son, he said he didn’t understand the true realities of violence. He said he shares his story to shine a light on the impact violence can have on generations, and ways it can be avoided.
Khamisa noted that society is not doing enough to make sure that young people don’t fall through the cracks and into lives ruined by alcohol, gangs, drugs and weapons. Plus, kids hear and see violence almost every day via television, music and video games.
After his son died, Khamisa said he needed to confront a fundamental question: Who is the enemy? The 14-year-old that took his son’s life? Or society?
Khamisa and Hick’s grandfather Ples Felix, came together nine months after Tariq’s murder through the spirit of healing to end youth violence by creating the Tariq Khamisa Foundation.
First, Khamisa had to visit Hicks in prison. He was 19 when Khamisa visited him, now he’s 41 and was released from prison after a 24-year sentence in 2019. Hicks recently joined Khamisa and Felix in their fight to end youth violence, by sharing his own gang experiences, which started when he was 11.
Khamisa noted that forgiveness can be freeing. These principles, he said, can be taught in school by asking a series of questions relating to the situation. Asking students what happened, and what their feelings and thoughts were when the situation happened help students get in touch with their emotions. He explained that most of the time, grief fuels anger.
Khamisa has helped millions of students find non-violence. Step one is to save the lives of children in youth, and step two is empowering them with the right choices so they don’t end up in a life of crime. The final step is to teach the principles of nonviolence, accountability, empathy, compassion, forgiveness, peace-making and peacebuilding.
When Khamisa, Felix and now Hicks speak to school assemblies, it can be the first time students see an alternative to violence. The foundation teaches restorative practices, a social science that helps to reduce crime, violence and bullying, while also improving human behavior and repairing society. Its end goal focuses on restorative justice, which repairs the harm caused by the crime or infraction.
Tracie Jackson, transportation director for Macon County Board of Education in Georgia, who is a mother herself to a son, said Khamisa gave a very moving presentation. She added that she agrees with his thoughts, saying that if you forgive a weight will be taken off you. She said she will try and take back Khamisa’s humble approach to her operations, while also encouraging her staff to stay positive.
Michael Slife, executive director of transportation at Rockford PSD #205 in Illinois, noted that per state legislation, his district is already changing its discipline approaches to result in fewer expulsions. He noted that they are now trying to find the root cause of what is contributing to the behavior.
Ward Leber, the founder of Child Safety Network, for which Khamisa currently serves as the senior advisor on youth violence prevention, explained how Khamisa’s story and restorative justice can apply to the school bus setting. Leber noted that Khamisa served as the treasurer of Child Safety Network when his son was murdered, and he helped launch a campaign to find the son’s killer.
“The way Azim’s presentation relates to the school bus industry is the restorative justice practices,” Leber explained following the keynote. “What you have is an organized method of taking whoever the person is that has a grievance, or maybe if it was a child that was bullied on the school bus, that parent might even want to sue the school district over it. That could lead to expulsions, it could lead to lawsuits, it could lead to the termination of a driver, it could lead to the driver deciding to quit. And in the middle of the worst school bus driver shortage in history, which is not getting any better — you don’t want to lose the drivers that you do have.”
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He continued that if more people practiced restorative justice and students were aware of how to solve conflicts without violence, expulsion rates would go down. For instance, in schools currently using this method, the expulsion rate has gone down by 70 percent, and on campus violence rate has gone down by almost 85 percent without adding any additional security, Leber said.
He noted that what Khamisa calls “compassionate confrontation” could be taught to the drivers, in which if something is bothering them instead of quitting, they could use management strategies to discuss what might be making them unhappy at work. He noted that restorative justice can help with workplace culture, as employees could see that there is a solution to conflicts.
Leber continued that when issues arise on the bus, there is rarely a resolution, there is disciplinary action, but the involved parties don’t “hug it out at the end.”
The two parties could go on hating one another, which could result in them not wanting to be in the same space. “Azim said he’s never met a perpetrator that wasn’t a victim,” Leber added, noting that kids could be taught that there is an organized way to talk through conflict. “Where people get to see it from the other person’s viewpoint and have the opportunity to make amends for it. You give them the opportunity to work it out.”
“It works everywhere. It works in corporate America,” Leber said, adding that it generates a huge reduction to risk.
“At the very beginning when you’re onboarding a teacher, onboarding kids onto the bus, and training the drivers, we should give them tools that allow them to work out conflicts that arise on board,” Leber said, adding that conflicts on board the l bus is unavoidable.
He added that CSN is launching a pilot program through the Colorado Student Protection Act that involves ensuring there is advanced driver training to reduce accidents and injuries, which will touch on practices of restorative justice.
Leber started the Tuesday session by also presenting an award to School Transportation News President and Publisher Tony Corpin, who was recognize by Congress as a child safety advocate for his efforts to promote school bus and student transportation across the U.S. Corpin also has a seat on the CSN board of advisors.