Filling in the Gaps to Understanding Restorative Justice in Schools

Erin Dunlevy from Children for Ramapo leads a Restorative Justice Training

On April 19th, NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña sent a letter out to schools directing families to the updated DOE Discipline Code. Now, I’m no expert on the discipline code. As a teacher, my prevention and handling of behavior issues tends to happen inside my classroom. Of course, there are incidents that I can’t address alone. Some incidents require consulting of the discipline code by someone who’s read the darn thing.

While looking at the updated DOE Discipline Code, the section titled “Progressive Discipline” on page eight caught my eye. In the updated code, there is a section called “Restorative Practices,” which outlines questions to ask when having restorative conversations. The document lists out various restorative practices such as Circle Process, Collaborative Negotiation, Peer Mediation, and Formal Restorative Conferences as some of the ways to address inappropriate behavior and repair harm. It’s refreshing to see a comprehensive description of restorative practices being formalized in the DOE.

But then I wondered, is this the same understanding that everyone else has at the school level? Is there a shared understanding between educators across the city when it comes to discipline?

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I love my school. It’s a middle school in Washington Heights. A few teachers have really spearheaded a movement to transition our school to a more restorative discipline system for the last four to five years with support from our administration. The goal was to return to practices that align with the founding values of the school and eliminate racialized discipline that contributes to the school to prison pipeline. Like any new system, much like new technology, the early adopters enthusiastically embrace it, while others have a limited view and/or tend to stick with what they know out of habit and comfort.

One of the biggest obstacles in transitioning to a system of restorative practices at my middle school with a staff of varying experience levels is that it often gets equated with “circles.” Conflict with a student? Have a circle! Need to address bullying in your class? Have a circle! How do you build community? Have a circle! Is your class getting too many detentions? …You guessed it — have a circle!

Though I am a relative newbie to teaching, and even newer to the concept of Restorative Justice, I can see and understand how it works to keep young Black and Latinx students people in school and to honor their humanity in the face of dehumanizing treatment by our increasingly militarized school system. What I don’t have are a lot of skills and practice to be able to make these approaches work. Another thing that I find myself lacking is the explanation that colleagues seek when asking why they should change their practices or how this will help or when will they find the time to have these conversations. The list of potential questions stretches on and I don’t always have the answers.

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The advocacy and leadership of Teachers Unite and the Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York has won several Restorative Justice initiatives (funding and professional development) for public school educators across the city. Recently, I attended a one-day Restorative Justice Training made available through the Department of Education’s Office of Safety and Youth Development. This training filled many of the gaps in my understanding and helped me to develop answers to many of my colleagues’ rising questions. My main takeaways were:

Circles aren’t always appropriate. As some schools (like mine) rush to enthusiastically embrace restorative circles, let’s not forget that sometimes conversations are enough. Before deciding if a circle is appropriate for any given conflict, we were encouraged to ask ourselves “Is this circle solution about meeting the needs of the humans involved or about meeting the needs of the system?”

A restorative conversation might happen if the two parties can talk out the issue with or without a third party mediator. Sometimes, all that people in conflict need is time and space to cool down. Sometimes, circles wouldn’t be productive or could even exacerbate a conflict. If a person is still too upset to see a person with whom they are in conflict with, deliberately placing them in a room together before they’re ready to talk rationally could become dangerous. Also, if parties are not yet ready to take responsibility for how their actions affected others, then the repair work that a circle is designed to provide can’t actually begin.

Conflict mediation circles don’t happen (or happen successfully) without planning. Pre-conferencing is the planning step in the conflict mediation circle process where each circle participant has a preparatory chat with a facilitator.

The crucial questions in this conference are “What are you willing to take responsibility for? What could you have done differently? And, would you be willing to say that to [name] in a circle?” If that set of questions cannot be answered, then the circle can’t happen. These questions are intended for adults (teachers, deans, advisors, etc.) in addition to the students because let’s face it — adults are often responsible for escalating a situation.

Finally, anyone who is involved in a circle has to be clear on what their ideal outcomes are. The pre-conference is the time when everyone can share their perspective on questions that fundamentally involve relationships, safety, and what they need in order to make a situation better.

Set the context. Setting the context is about narrating the fact that restorative schools are communities of care. For example, saying “This class isn’t complete without you” to a young person who walks in late is more validating and community-minded than a terse “You’re late.” Whether having a restorative conversation or a circle, a key feature is to remind everyone present of the school’s commitment to this new way of approaching discipline.

Remind school staff (because they need reminders too!) that adults are here to help young people grow and learn how to handle upsetting situations. Also, it’s worth mentioning that adults, as professionals, can always learn how to better manage situations that come up in their classes. It might sound something like “The goals of our school are to keep young people in school and out of trouble or jail. I’ve got your back no matter what, and I won’t let anyone else in the room blame you. What I need from you is to show maturity and for you to take responsibility for your actions.”

The first person that might need to get the self-reflection ball rolling is the adult or facilitator to model what taking ownership over a mistake, harm, or neglect looks like. Remembering to set the context before each and every conversation can begin to foster the consistency that is so necessary for any widespread change to take root.

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As my school and many others move forward with transitioning our approach to building community and maintaining safety for all, I found this training a helpful reminder to slow down. Set the context. Keep asking questions. Don’t rush into an intervention just to serve the name of Restorative Justice and say “See? We’re doing it!”

Historically, education policy loves the idea of quick fixes at the expense of social and emotional development. By contrast, recovering from the legacy of quick fixes is a long process. Restorative Justice takes years to understand and implement. If our school district is really rethinking discipline, we want it to be successful.

Currently, the NYPD School Safety Budget allocates almost $500 million a year for policing schools, scanning students, and arresting young people for minor misbehaviors. Think about what kinds of positive supports for students and schools we could be spending this money on such as Restorative Justice Coordinators.

Schools need dedicated, full-time Restorative Justice Coordinators to support educators, students, and parents in leading these cultural shifts in our schools and communities for the long haul. The work of eliminating racial disparities in suspensions and student pushout needs commitment from every level, from those working and learning in NYC schools to those writing and printing the Discipline Code.

This training was a glimpse of how collective problem solving and authentic listening can act as a preventative measure to school pushout. I encourage educators, parents, and students to envision a system where this is the norm rather than the exception and to join this movement with groups such as Teachers Unite. The reality is that folks across the country and across traditions have been using restorative practices for centuries. Let’s listen to the needs of one another and continue to advocate for the treatment of all our students, especially students of color, to be dignified and deserving of a belief that a more just world is possible.

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Sarah M. is in her sixth year teaching middle school and has the gray hairs and sense of humor to prove it. She began her official educator career with the NYC Teaching Fellows is a member of Teachers Unite. Her background is in Special Education, Bilingual Education, Literacy, and Restorative Practices. She hopes to learn many more skills to help her empower students, and she also wants to learn a two-finger whistle.