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Restorative Justice Creates a Culture of Safety

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By Betheny Lyke & Spencer Byrd

Traditional punitive discipline is about guilt, blame and punishment. But more schools are implementing restorative justice practices that focus on repairing harm by engaging everyone involved - including students who are acting out and others affected by the behavior, (peers, teachers, staff and parents). Restorative justice practices address the root cause of disruptive behavior with the goal of preventing it from happening again.

The concept is simple, but not "easy" - it's much easier to suspend or expel students. Yet restorative justice is worth the extra effort. It helps students understand why they're acting out, accept responsibility and make amends. It can short circuit the cycle of repeat suspensions and disrupt the "school-to-prison pipeline," offering the chance to succeed. Additionally, it gives bullied students a voice, supports an inclusive climate and creates a culture of school safety.

The Illinois Center for School Improvement, a project of the American Institutes for Research (Illinois CSI at AIR) helped Meridian Unit School District 101 in Mounds, Ill., improve its approach to discipline. According to school officials, out-of-school suspensions plummeted by two-thirds, reports of bullying decreased, and students have shared at an annual recognition luncheon event and during the school day over the last three years that they feel safer.

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Here's how restorative justice practices have made a difference (students' names have been changed for their privacy):

  • In second grade, Marcus thought other students were talking about him so he upended desks, threw books and was suspended for more than 60 days. He entered third-grade as the district began implementing restorative justice practices. His teacher, based on what she'd learned, suggested Marcus give her a secret signal when he was frustrated, and then go to an area of the room with a three-side partition so he could work without being distracted. When he fought with another student in fourth grade, the two sat down to talk it out and Marcus now understands how his behavior was affecting others. After two years and many counseling sessions, Marcus is the leader of a program to read to first graders. This boy, once destined for alternative school, has become a role model.
  • Breaking another student's nose normally would have meant automatic expulsion and a juvenile detention center sentence for Anthony. But administrators learned the high schooler was a first-time offender, had had a recent death in the family and was repeatedly provoked by the other students. Instead, Anthony served a three-day suspension and attended counseling and mediation sessions. The students are now getting along in the same classroom.
  • In third grade, Shonda often stood at her desk and screamed at her classmate, Theresa. It turned out Shonda was upset and embarrassed because Theresa's mother gave Shonda her hand-me-down clothes and Theresa was telling other students. Both families established a safe place for Shonda to express herself, which helped Theresa realize she hurt Shonda's feelings. They reached a truce and the classroom has been calmer.

Restorative justice isn't magic - there are certainly ongoing challenges. Students quickly grasp and support the concept, but adults sometimes have a harder time understanding it. Teachers often want problem children out of their classrooms so they can focus those who are behaving. Parents and others typically demand disruptive students be punished for their behavior.

At Meridian, we're navigating those bumps in the road. Illinois CSI at AIR helps Meridian evaluate initiatives and assess what's working and what isn't addressing the root cause of disruptive behavior. with the goal of preventing it from happening again.

Here's what we've learned so far:

  • Spread the word: Restorative justice must be a vision of the entire community - going slowly to get everyone's buy-in is important. We explain how and why restorative justice works to groups such as the Lion's Club so that they in turn can sell it to the community, particularly parents.
  • Commit to training: Teachers should understand the concept and strategy behind restorative justice, as well as the techniques to defuse tense situations.
  • Provide support: It's vital to have restorative justice coordinators. Social workers also play a major role. All staff play a role in supporting one another.

Suspensions haven't disappeared, but Meridian has minimized repeat offenses and created a safer climate as well as a culture of understanding. Restorative justice provides students the chance to be productive, instead of violent, repairing harm by engaging everyone involved. And that benefits everyone.

Betheny Lyke, Ed.D., is the executive director of the Illinois Center for School Improvement at the American Institutes for Research.

Spencer Byrd is the former superintendent of Meridian School District 101 (Ill.).

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