The restorative justice forum I attended last week was very interesting. It was attended by several people from the Youth Justice Agency, someone from the police, someone from the Prison Service, Harry CRJI’s director, myself, a teacher who has played a major role in bringing restorative justice to her grade school, and 5 or 6 other people whose roles I was never totally clear on. I met the woman who first connected me to CRJI by email, she works for the YJA. I was very excited when I realized who it was, but I refrained from squealing and from treating everyone to an excited rambling outburst about how I knew this woman. Everyone else was very professional, I did my best to fit in. It was a really fascinating and inspiring meeting, I had to refrain from squealing several more times.
Nearly half of the meeting was spent talking about restorative justice in schools. The teacher told us about her school, a small grade school in a very socioeconomically disadvantaged area. The school has typically had a bad reputation but in the past 2 years, following the introduction of a restorative approach to conflict management and addressing behavioral issues, the school has seen a remarkable transformation. In 2 years the number of suspensions per year has dropped from 86 to 0 (dropping from 200 per year when efforts for transformation began 5 years ago), the number of incidents is down, grades have gone up, attendance has increased and as the teacher said: “the school and student body just seem happy when you walk in the door.”
Restorative justice in schools does not have to be super formal. The system described had several main aspects:
- Teaching and helping kids to talk conflicts out and listen to the other side respectfully and work out restorative solutions.
- Encouraging them to express their feelings and frustrations, engaging and acknowledging their challenges and offering a listening ear.
- Teaching kids to take ownership and responsibility for their actions and their mistakes, teaching that harms can be healed and relationships repaired. This is instead of a strictly punitive system which teaches kids that mistakes are punished with little sympathy or regard for circumstances, and that it is better and safer to hide their mistakes and place blame on others.
- Encouraging teachers and staff to take the time to genuinely listen to kids and respect them as equals with equally real challenges and motivations.
- Also getting teachers to commit to a restorative approach, to operate with empathy and to admit their own mistakes and challenges when it is appropriate.
The educator said that the atmosphere of the school has completely turned around. She described “a culture of responsibility and honesty” in the school and told us of how some kids have been practicing restorative conflict solving at home with their families.
Perhaps the most important thing to come of it is that kids now see their school as a safe and secure environment, especially important for the many kids with issues and instability in their home lives. It was incredibly moving to hear about this school’s transformation to such a positive and constructive learning environment and a haven of safety and support.
Such models require adaptability and the willingness of teachers to let go of traditional methods of discipline, but seem applicable in some form to just about any school environment. Though I see many political barriers to widespread implementation of similar models, I see no practical reason that restorative justice approaches should not take some form in every school in the US. The benefits to students and staff alike can be significant and immediate. The beauty of such a model is that it does not require a constant major influx of resources, and it is so simple. Teachers and administrators would receive some training but the positive outcomes arise from changing the nature of interpersonal interactions in the school environment, which itself costs nothing and creates a better atmosphere for everyone.
The teacher shared specific statistics illustrating the changes that had arisen from the restorative approach. As the group talked about how to best present this model to the Board of Education, I realized once again how important it is to have such numbers and quantitatively track change. It is wonderful and moving to hear personal stories and that kids feel safe and motivated at school, but dealing with a government agency it is the significantly increased school attendance rates, higher average grades and dramatic decrease in suspensions and behavioral incidents all mapped out in numbers that will secure support.
After reading this piece in the New York Times I am as convinced as ever that the US needs a major change in how we “do” education. I would so love to see the promise and beautiful simplicity of restorative justice recognized and seized.
Check out this NPR story about a US high school that is giving restorative justice a try – School Hopes Talking It Out Keeps Kids from Dropping Out