by Dave Warner

Twenty teachers and administrators gathered in the library this week for training on Restorative Justice from 8:30 am until  3:30 pm each day. The program began in the middle school last year and has now spread to the high school staff.

The idea is that culturally appropriate restorative justice practices can be used in schools, particularly in classrooms, to help create a culture of care in schools. Research has shown that there needs to be a sense of school connectedness and caring with nurturing relationships between the teachers and the students so that there can be an increase in the students’ positive experiences of schooling and a movement away from zero-tolerance punishment strategies.

According to principal Leeann Dooley, “It’s about getting to the root of the problem.”

She says that she has been taking this approach for a few years on her own when it comes to dealing with student problems. “It’s really looking at and having a conversation and trying to repair relationships that have been damaged from things that they have done and to fix it so that it doesn’t happen again.”

Dooley has seen some success with the use of these practices, so now she believes it’s time to train the staff. “It’s more than just discipline. There’s a lot of other approaches to solving the problem.”

According to Middle School Principal Maria Lindsay, “We did a book study last year called Better Than Carrots or Sticks, which is kind of an intro book that gives the ‘why’ behind the restorative practices and why you would want to do it.”

The book outlined how to implement the program and it allowed the middle school staff to be better prepared for this year’s training. “It’s about preventing a certain behavior from happening again, but it’s also about making them aware that it’s not just about the two people involved in the conflict. It affects other people around you – your family, the other people in the building, and the teachers,” said Lindsay.

She feels that it’s about giving them awareness about how their actions have an impact on not just the other individual, but all of the people around them.

Lindsay said, “What we’re finding with all of the technology out there, is that their communication skills are lacking. Because they can hide behind the phone and throw a text out or a post on social media and be upset with one another through that medium, it’s very hard for them to come face-to-face and have a conversation.”

The restorative justice program brings students to the table in circles and helps them to manage conflict and learn how to deal with those conflicts, rather than lashing out.

“We’re trying to bring that face-to-face contact back and really learn how to talk to one another and learn how to resolve those conflicts,” said Lindsay.

“There may still be traditional consequences, ISS, OSS, detentions, things like that. There’s still that piece that is not off the table. But it’s holding kids accountable for their actions while trying to figure out what is happening and what’s behind it to try and prevent it from happening again,” said Dooley.

The first two days covered the premise behind restorative justice and explaining the different kinds of circles, including the community and the remainder of the week involved different scenarios and role-playing.

The middle school has also moved their homeroom period to the beginning of the day so that teachers can check in with students and see how their evening went and find out ahead of time if there are any issues that need to be diffused.

“Sometimes students are coming in in crisis and you can’t expect them to go right to class and do what they need to do,” said Dooley.

The middle school has already seen positive results from this change. “We used to have homeroom at the end of the day,” said Lindsay. “There are now about 10-12 students in every teacher’s classroom in the morning, so this is not just our core teachers, everyone has a homeroom.”

During that homeroom period this year, the students are also getting a chance to learn about restorative justice as well, by reading a book called ‘Touching Spirit Bear’ and having conversations about conflict.

“This is the first year (in the middle school) of kids doing this. It’s part of like a ritual. It’s something the kids can look forward to. They know they have this safe place to vent. If they’re having a hard time in another area of the school day, I know who their homeroom teacher is so that we can try and make that connection,” Lindsay said.

Both principals feel that this allows the children to calm down before they go to their first class so that they can focus more on learning, and they believe that they’re seeing a difference.

“Kids that are coming in a few minutes late for school for reasons that may not be their fault are not missing instruction either. They’re not interrupting first-period class,” stated Lindsay.

After this week, the high school staff will have five teachers that are trained in this practice. “It’s a little bit different at the high school level to try and get this up off the ground, so we’ll be meeting to find out how that’s going to roll out here as the year goes on,” said Dooley.

“We just want to give students an opportunity to talk,” she said.

The district decided to put the program on in order to reduce suspension rates at the schools, and Suzanne Petersen out of The International Institute of Restorative Practices in Bethlehem PA led the week of training.