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What I Learned About the Power of Restorative Justice in Schools

What I Learned About the Power of Restorative Justice in Schools

Facilitate healing between your students with talking circles.

I've been hearing a great deal about the use of restorative justice in schools lately, but I only had a vague idea of how it worked. A friend told me that if I was going to look into restorative justice, I needed to speak to Janet Connors, who's an expert in the field. She's a long-time community and social justice activist in Boston who has worked in the neighborhoods most affected by violence and social injustice issues for more than 40 years.

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The Origins of Restorative Justice

Janet explained that restorative justice stems from indigenous cultures that have used, and still use, these practices. Talking circles, a core principle of restorative justice, have been used by Native Americans for many years. The tradition is not exactly a technique—it's a way of life that embodies the philosophy, principles, and values that people can use at any time. Members of the First Nations of Canada began teaching this practice to non-native people in the 1990s, and it wasn't long before Dakota-Ojibwe scholar Chuck Robertson and his trained associates began to bring the circle process into schools.

Further reading: Authority in the Classroom

It surprised me to discover that I was already familiar with restorative justice. Janet used a childhood example to make that point. "When we were children, if we broke our grandmother's window, we apologized, and we worked out some way to pay for the window and to make things right again." This example made a lot of sense to me.

As Janet went on to say, this approach "calls for responsibility and accountability," and it makes a distinction between who we are as people and the actions we may take. "The important part," Janet added, "is we learn from our mistakes. Punishment is imposed and it comes down upon. Accountability comes from within—it comes from the heart and soul."

Holding Students Accountable

Critics of restorative justice mistakenly think the approach enables and lets kids off easy. But in actuality, it holds them responsible for their actions. "Schools sometimes have a 'We can't let them get away with this' way of thinking,'" Janet noted. Say, for example, a student punches another student at school. "That student is suspended, but the situation of conflict and harm remains, and the person who is harmed still does not know what will happen when the suspended student comes back to school," she said.

Restorative justice processes are a better approach because they can help get to the heart of a matter. In the aforementioned example, a restorative justice solution would ask: What happened? What were you thinking and feeling at the time of the event and after? Who was impacted by these actions and what, if any, accountability do you have in it? What do you need to move forward? What's the obligation of the person who caused that harm to meet those needs? "It's not going to mean making things like they were before," Janet notes, "but it will make things as right as possible."

Restorative justice isn't about "he said, she said." Instead, it's about bringing things back into balance and harmony. When faced with a problem, instead of saying, "This is wrong, and this is what the district says the punishment should be," we should consider going through the restorative process. Because restorative justice holds kids accountable, they're more likely to make better choices in the future. In some schools that practice restorative justice, it's believed that the approach helps shut off the "school-to-prison pipeline" for some demographics.

Practicing Restorative Justice in School

In a school where Janet does restorative justice work, Tuesday is circle day, and it's key to building relationships and creating a different culture. Circles utilize an object that Janet calls the "talking piece." When someone has the piece, it's their turn to speak and everyone else must listen. A circle will usually open with a quote or a prompt, and then the talking piece gets passed around in one direction. With the second pass of the talking stick, people get deeper in terms of what they share. Everyone shares but you can also choose to pass. "The talking piece is great equalizer," Janet said. "No one can talk over you." Circles end with a closing and check-in round.

Erik Sengel, a paraeducator who works at Salida High School in Salida, Colorado, recently had the opportunity to take two of his students through the restorative justice process. They had vandalized some cars together. At first, his students thought restorative justice might be a great way to receive a lenient sentence, but in the end, they gleaned much more about the impact of their actions. The victims were able to vocalize their feelings to the students, and they, in turn, took responsibility for their actions. In addition to closure, the restorative justice process allowed forgiveness, so the feelings aren't brought up each time the participants see each other in school or in their small town. "Having people face to face, with positive mediated dialogue, only helps to strengthen the bonds between people," Erik told me. "Restorative justice is a very positive addition to anyone's conflict resolution strategies."

Further reading: How to Handle Plagiarism and Cheating in the Classroom

After speaking to Janet and teachers who use restorative justice in schools, I was anxious to share what I learned with my principal, who was open to a discussion about implementing restorative justice at our school. Until then, I plan to learn more about talking circles, and I hope to begin exploring how to use them in my own advisory classroom.