Simone Phillips, a student of Lisa Sands at Central York High School in York, Pennsylvania, read and responded to the YES! Magazine article, “Where Dignity is Part of the School Day,” by Fania Davis, a story about using restorative justice circles in schools in lieu of zero-tolerance punishment. She shows how giving a student the chance to tell his or her story can help teachers and administrators get to the root of a behavioral problem, and ultimately keep kids in school and out of jail.
Writing Prompt: Describe a memorable example of when you or someone you know was disciplined at school. Was everyone given the chance to tell his or her story? Imagine you have the talking piece. What would you say to the teachers or school administrators involved about how the situation was handled? What would you say to teachers and school administrators in general to encourage them to treat all students with genuine dignity and respect?
Voiceless Youth on a Dead End Path
Days were getting shorter, nights were getting cooler, and summer was finally drawing to a close. One evening before the beginning of the school year, my mother, younger brother, younger sister, and I drove out to the local technical high school for its open house. My brother PJ’s freshman year was approaching and he had decided to attend VoTech, our area’s vocational technical high school. We toured the automotive department and I remember thinking that this would be a great fresh start for my brother. He was always fidgeting in class and needed the hands-on curriculum that VoTech would provide. I was really proud of him for getting in and finding a place that would fortify his future.
The year started out well. He was excelling with the school’s physical approach to teaching and learning, but things started to change gradually. It seemed as though one day my little brother stood in front of me, a quirky and energetic little boy, and the next thing I knew I was up worrying at 1:00 a.m., waiting for my delinquent brother to return home. He seemed to be spiraling out of control. He got involved with drugs, alcohol, and terrible people. I knew my brother needed help, but the only thing the school would do was suspend him. The constant suspensions caused him to sleep the day away and then disappear before anyone else got home. My mother was a mess. As a single mom, she didn’t have the choice to stay at home so she could monitor my brother, making sure that he didn’t leave the house while serving his suspension; she couldn’t afford to miss work. Even when he was supposed to report to school, it was almost impossible for her to force him to go. Things continued to deteriorate for months until my brother checked into a youth home and later a rehabilitation center.
That was over a year ago, and today, as I wait for his ever-nearing return, I imagine the grins and playfulness my baby brother once had. I still wonder how much trouble and time could have been saved if my brother’s school had used a restorative justice program.
I know that having a chance to tell his side of the story wouldn’t have fixed all of his problems— many of them stemmed from deep, and long-lasting incidents from his past— but it would have helped to troubleshoot my brother’s behavior. Had I been given the talking piece that Tommy used to present his case in Fania Davis’ article, “Where Dignity is Part of the School Day,” I would have had a lot to say to both my brother and the administration. I would have reminded him how unique and amazing his opportunity for success was at VoTech. I would have told the administration that their punishments were only working as a gateway to further his destructive behaviors, and that what he really needed was one-on-one personal attention. Having the chance to hear everyone’s point of view would have sped up my brother’s diagnosis and ultimate rehabilitation. I understand that my brother’s drug and alcohol abuse would not have been remedied through the restorative justice program. However, the early intervention would have saved months of worry and stress inflicted upon my family, and would have helped us to find the root cause of PJ’s behavior. Restorative justice would have also allowed PJ’s school to avoid court costs and time caused by his absences, suspensions, and outbursts.
All students have a unique background to explain their behavior. Ultimately, I am glad that my brother was able to get the help he needed. I hope that my brother’s story has served to strengthen VoTech’s administration’s decision-making and that the mistakes made were not in vain. Both he and Tommy show how important it is to take each party’s perspective into consideration. Allowing both parties to recount their story will only strengthen and personalize the decision-making process in a way that allows everyone involved to benefit from the less than perfect situation. Restorative justice is the creative means to solve the problem of impersonal punishments. It is the true way to turn a bad situation into one in which all will grow.