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Restorative Patience

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By Sajan George, Founder & Chief Executive Officer for Matchbook Learning

holger-link-699972-unsplash.jpgSocieties, communities, organizations, and even schools require a means by which justice can be achieved.  Most organizing bodies organize themselves around what is considered a system of "retributive justice." This system asks 3 fundamental questions:

  • What laws have been broken?

  • Who did it?

  • What do they deserve?

The main purpose of a retributive justice system is to restore the injured party back to before the injustice occurred. If that is not possible, the purpose is to ensure that the offending party is sufficiently penalized to serve as a deterrent for future offenses and to appease the sense of injustice felt by the victim.  

However, in recent times, another justice system, a "restorative justice" system, has emerged that seeks to answer three different questions:

  • Who has been harmed?

  • What are their needs?

  • Whose obligations are these?

Howard Zehr in the Little Book of Restorative Justice states that retributive theory believes that pain will vindicate, but in practice that belief is counterproductive for both parties.  If we are to truly address harms and causes, we must explore the harms that those who cause harm have themselves experienced. This is not a diluted form of accountability where "everyone gets a trophy" just for showing up.  It is a recognition that unresolved trauma tends to be re-enacted.

Since launching Matchbook Learning's charter restart in Indianapolis, we've seen a significant amount of "fight, flight, and freeze" responses from children suffering from significant levels of emotional trauma.  How do you balance compassion (for both victim and offender) with accountability?

We've designed three levels of restorative justice to help both students and staff become restored:

Restorative Justice Level I:  Culture

We start and end each day with a restorative circle with our entire school staff (faculty, admin, operations).  These circles occur before the students arrive in the morning and after they leave at the end of the day. The circle is prompted with a singular question to which EVERYONE responds.  

Sometimes the question is directed toward tasks and opportunities.

  • What's one hope you have for today?  

  • What's one challenge you are struggling to implement?  

Sometimes the question is personal and revealing in a fun way.

  • Describe yourself as a weather pattern in terms of how you feel today?

  • What kind of candy bar best sums up your energy level?

Before the school day begins, staff are anxious to get their day going, and at the conclusion of every day, they are anxious to leave behind their work day, but these circles provide time with each and every life under our employment.  In many organizations, weeks, maybe months, go by before you see every single person in the building or organization. In our school, every person from the top to the bottom is seen every day. This physical reminder leaves an impression that builds toward a connective, restorative culture.  

Restorative Justice Level II:  Classroom

Our classrooms are fitted with "help" buttons that teachers can press when they need restorative assistance.  Every one of our leaders (academic and non-academic) have a walkie-talkie to coordinate a response within minutes.  A student is removed from the classroom and a restorative process begins. In the cases where multiple students are involved, multiple administrators respond.  Students do not return to class until they are willing to apologize for their infraction to the offended party, often another student. Teachers are also addressed in the cases where they have been disrespected, their instructions ignored, or their classroom disrupted.  This process is called "closing the circle." It takes time and it is not always easy to pull a teacher out to close the circle with another student; it requires yet another adult to cover the class while that happens. However, it shows both the students involved in the restoration and their classmates not involved that restoration, while it takes time, is the process and product to which we always return.

Restorative Justice Level III.  Individual

In some cases, after a student is removed from a classroom, they may not be ready to be restored and close the circle with those they have harmed.  For the restorative process to be genuine and effective, it cannot be coerced. Students must come to this recognition of their obligation to respond to the victim's needs on their own (albeit with guidance and choice).  To honor the process and provide both space and time for self-reflection and hopefully growing self-awareness, we have a couple of designated restorative spaces in our school where students can go to decompress and process.  A natural tension emerges from lost instructional time when a student is in a restorative space, although students take some of their academic work to these settings. However, the effectiveness of any learning is strengthened when the restorative process is allowed to run its course and students return to their classrooms reconciled and ready to learn.  

Restorative Justice Takes Time

While a school implementing a system of restorative justice sounds idyllic and perhaps even utopian, the pragmatic challenge of implementing such a system (assuming there's cultural buy-in from the top down) is time.  Restorative justice takes time. Patience. To engage a student who just shoved another student in the heat of anger in a conversation, a series of questions, a dialogue; to discuss the needs for the receiving student to be respected, affirmed, and not harmed in both physical and emotional ways; to understand the offending student's own triggers that overwhelm their sense of self-regulation; and then to reconcile both parties to each other and back to their classroom... this is generally not a two-minute exercise.  Doling out the quick punishments of retributive justice is far more expedient.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. never said justice was quick.  In fact he famously referenced 19th century abolitionist Theodore Parker when he said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."  May we have the kind of patience restorative justice requires.

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Photo by Holger Link
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