Restorative Justice: conversations and mediations that make schools safer
In light of recent school shootings, many are talking about how to prevent gun violence in schools. In this context, it’s also important to consider the best approaches for schools to prevent common acts of violence or conflict.
Instead of the old-school practices of discipline, suspension, or other punitive practices, a different model should be utilized: restorative justice. Fully implementing restorative justice in schools will help students involved in conflict learn from their mistakes, take responsibility for their actions, and overall make students and staff feel safer.
Restorative justice is a way to resolve conflict or behavioral issues that focuses on rehabilitation, mediation, and giving back to the community. It asks students to think about how their behavior affects others, make apologies, and resolve conflict by having mediation with those directly affected by the conflict as well as the broader community.
South’s equity and diversity coordinator, Alex Endeshaw, said restorative practices do not focus on punishment: “We’re looking to understand what happened, why it happened, and let you know that the motivation behind your actions was probably insufficient to what you did to another individual and to the community.”
Punishment, in contrast, is solely about blaming students for their actions instead of trying to understand students’ perspectives and helping them become better people. “I think [restorative justice is] more of a positive approach to help students make decisions about their behavior, whereas with negative reinforcement there’s really no attention given to why it’s a bad choice; just that it was a bad choice,” said Open social studies teacher Josh Fisher.
Overall, South has done a good job implementing restorative practices. As a result there have been fewer suspensions, less bullying, and a safer community in recent years. “There’s more of an attempt to reconcile between teachers or students when there are conflicts…[and] have a conversation instead of a blanket punishment,” said Fisher.
In particular, South’s behavior dean, Terrence Roberts, works hard to practice mediation with students who have had conflict and individual remediation for those with behavioral issues. “When [conflict happens] we try to sit students down and get their sides of the story…We hear one side and the other side, and we come to a consensus with some agreements,” Roberts said. “We gotta learn how to coexist.. Teaching kids how to talk things out. And a lot of times they end up shaking hands or hugging at the end.”
The current district policy surrounding behavior encourages each MPS school to have at least a few staff trained in restorative justice who use mediation practices to solve conflict and lower suspension rates, but there is no clear district requirement for a certain number of staff to be trained in restorative justice or a certain level of education in restorative practice for the whole school. In fact, many schools depend on School Resource Officers (SROs) hired from the police department to de-escalate situations. There are currently not policies in place requiring SROs to be trained in restorative practice.
Additionally, behavior policies aren’t monitored that closely at individual schools. “At different schools there’s always been [so many] suspensions, and when you suspend students they’re not learning nothing at home for three days,” said Roberts.
Even the implementation of restorative practices at South should be improved. As senior Fiona Rose-Kelly described, there’s no policy for how teachers should deal with behavioral issues in their classrooms. “I get frustrated when I see a teacher getting mad at a student for falling asleep in class, or not paying attention,” Kelly said. “And rather than saying ‘hey, are you ok, do you need something to eat, do you need to go to the nurse,’ their immediate response is ‘sit up straighten up’… It’s very hard-line, there’s no emotional connection there.”
Rose-Kelly, who is currently working with a group called Young People’s Action Coalition (YPAC) is helping research ways to replace SROs and harsher punishment practices by implementing restorative practices throughout the district. Their goals are to “replace [SROs] with a community ambassador and possibly more counselors for emotional help… just people trained in de-escalating situations and taking preventative measures.”
Kelly also said that “all schools should have a safe space room with food available… [with] someone there that you can talk to that’s trained in helping with those situations.”
To get restorative justice implemented fully in school communities, all staff should be required to go through restorative training. As Fisher explained, these trainings should “be more specific around what [restorative justice] entails, helping people practice it in role-playing scenarios… so it could show people more of what it means.”
Implementing restorative justice more intentionally and holistically will help students learn more about restorative practices as well as teachers. Resolving conflict through mediation will become the norm for everyone and will likely make all students feel safer. As Endeshaw said, “That means getting students to step back from the anxiety and the cyclical nature of [blame], and accept that if you get into conflict… you’re going to have to deal with it.”
If restorative justice is commonplace in schools, it will set a precedent for these types practices to be used more broadly in the U.S. It will help curb everyday violence, police brutality, and mass incarceration. It could help prevent tragedies like mass shootings, instead of stopping this violence with more violence and fear. If we want to live in a country with fewer guns and more conversations, restorative justice is an essential first step.