Using Restorative Justice to Transform School Culture
When restorative Justice is implemente at the school level, it has the potential to transform relationships between teachers and students. In response to the individual and collective trauma our students, teachers, and staff have faced during the pandemic, I worked with my school to create a therapeutic justice program during the 2021-22 school year. Although conflicts sometimes manifest at the individual level, I needed not incorporate restorative practices into my classroom. Instead, to truly impact students’ experiences at school, I knew we had to start working to implement restorative Justice school-wide. These are some of the key takeaways from my experience as a middle school restorative justice coordinator.
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Restorative Referee is not a Behavior Management Technique.
Because schools depend on compliance and following rules, Restorative Justice is often frame as a behavior and classroom management technique, leading to burnout and frustration among teachers. I remember conversations with teachers who felt that restorative practices didn’t work. One teacher said, “I asked him the restorative questions and the next day he kept interrupting class.” This expectation of immediate behavior changes stems from a misunderstanding of the complexity of human behavior and relationships.
If we see restorative practices as strategies that help us build authentic relationships and address harm, we will have the necessary tools to address the conflicts that inevitably occur. In turn, we can humanize ourselves and our students by shifting from transactional relationships (i.e., I will use restorative practices if you change your behavior) to authentic relationships (i.e., I will use restorative practices to strengthen our connection).
A few months into the start of the school year, a colleague shared her concern that one of her students, Marcus, was being bullied by his classmate Xavier (not her real name). He knew these students from class, so they felt comfortable talking to me. I began by speaking with each student individually, using restorative questions to guide our conversations. After talking to both of them, they agreed to form a restorative circle.
Restorative Circles can be used on a spectrum from proactive relationship building to responding to more severe instances of harm. The circle should be facilitate by someone who has not been involved in the conflict to remain more neutral. This can be a teacher, a staff member, or, in some cases, a student trained in peer circles.
In this case, the people instantly impacted by the conflict participate in the process. In a shaky voice, Marcus shared the hurtful names Xavier was calling him and how it affected him. When it came time to question Xavier, he immediately took responsibility for his actions; he explained the role of peer pressure but offered a sincere apology and promised to stop the bullying. Weeks later, after several check-ins with each student, she learned that Xavier had kept his promise to stop bullying Marcus.
Restorative circles can be use as fierce relationship-building plans on a more significant ranking. Teachers can circle their class at the beginning and end of each week and use a reflection question with a prompt such as “What’s a word to describe how you’re feeling today?” or “Who are the multiple most important someone in your life? Why?” Rounds allow apiece students to talk and show a path to make sense of the district. The hope here is that investing in relationships creates environments in which harm and conflict are less likely to occur in the first place and easier to resolve when they do occur.
Schools can recall these questions as a community:
- How does our teaching and facilitation change when we return classroom management to community building?
- What does our current punitive discipline model teach students how to resolve their conflicts?
Medicinal Justice requires challenging control dynamics between students and teachers.
This lesson was reinforced when a teacher asked me to facilitate a circle between her and one of her students, which caused regular interruptions. In our circle, this student felt that the teacher was maltreating her. She shared specific instances where she was reprimanded in front of the class for being disruptive when asking a classmate for help. The teacher in this situation could listen, apologize, and work with her student to create a plan for moving forward. that worked for both of us.
After the restorative circle, the perceptions of both the teacher and the student seemed to change. The teacher admitted that her response was only leading to more matches. The student seemed to understand that the teacher was acting out of frustration. She developed some empathy for the teacher’s situation, recognizing that trying to keep all the students interested all the time is challenging.
If this student had been punished for misbehavior, the role of the teacher in this conflict would have been ignored, and the problem would have persisted. When we only blame and punish children for conflicts, teachers also contribute. We teach students that it is okay for adults, not students, to make mistakes. While teachers are not responsible for the actions of their students, we are responsible for how we respond to conflicts with students and for creating the conditions for relationships, no matter how complicated, to grow in our classrooms.
Schools can reflect on these queries as a community:
- How can we create a space for students to feel safe to address conflicts with adults at school?
- How can teachers model and take responsibility for causing harm?
Restorative Justice requires root cause analysis.
If we do not critically examine the underlying causes of harm and conflict in schools, the same patterns of conflict and harm will repeat themselves. I often work with students on a micro level to identify the root causes of repeated conflict. Sometimes there was an underlying conflict with a teacher; sometimes, problems with classmates caused conflict in class; other times, conflicts in their personal lives caused problems in class.
On a macro level, we need to examine how systems of oppression manifest themselves in schools. Does your school’s dress code policy disproportionately punish girls and trans students? Does your school’s attendance policy disproportionately penalize students with disabilities? These are the kinds of questions that help us understand how systems of oppression play out in our schools. Transformative Justice, which underpins restorative Justice, provides a necessary framework for understanding how systems of oppression sustain conflict and harm and how we can transform the conditions that lead to harm. This attention to root causes helps ensure that students are not blamed for conflicts beyond their actions.
Schools can reflect on these queries as a community:
- What conditions (practices, rules, beliefs, etc.) could cause harm or conflict in your classroom and school?
- What power do you have to convert those conditions?
Xavier and Marcus
story illustrates both the possibilities for healing and reconciliation with restorative Justice and the power of real-life consequences. Being confronte.By the person you harmed. Understanding your actions’ impact, and taking steps to reconcile is much more effective than traditional consequences like detention. Where students can hide from the harm they caused. Even when it is necessary to remove a student from the classroom for safety. Convening a restorative circle when the student re-enters the classroom still offers the opportunity for reconciliation. Restorative Justice is messy and complicated work, but our students, teachers, and staff deserve the dignity, connection, and healing it offers.