Kayla Rice, a student of Erin Conley at The Peace and Justice Academy in Pasadena, California, 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 and 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?
Restorative Justice Gone Wrong
Restorative justice can be an effective way to handle conflicts, but if carried out incorrectly, it can create more problems than it solves.
Not too long ago, my friend Lyle got into an argument with some kids from his school on a social media site. The incident came to the school’s attention because some kids were name-calling on the site, and one of them threatened to beat Lyle up. This student had already been suspended earlier in the year for verbally threatening Lyle.
The school attempted to use restorative justice to fix the situation, but in my opinion, they did a sloppy job. In the meeting, the guidance counselor and the student who threatened Lyle sat next to each other. This gave the appearance that they were telling Lyle what he did wrong, instead of what both students could have done differently. What I’ve learned about restorative justice is that when you set up a meeting, one should make sure that the chairs are spaced equally apart because otherwise someone could feel ganged up on.
Unfortunately, the majority of the meeting was focused on the comments that were made, rather than working toward restoring the relationship between Lyle and the other students involved. Lyle was also pulled out of class four times to speak with each student accused of name-calling. To other students looking in from the outside, this made it seem as though Lyle had done something wrong.
If a teacher is not invested in a subject, they will not teach as well as a teacher who is committed to a subject. Likewise, if a school is not committed to using restorative justice, it won’t make restorative justice its first and only option, leaving students confused about how the school will resolve conflicts. As shown in Fania Davis’ YES! Magazine article, “Where Dignity is Part of the School Day,” after some Oakland schools committed to practicing restorative justice, their students not only started expecting restorative justice as a resolution, but they also started asking counselors for restorative justice before a conflict got out of hand. Their school suspension rates dropped by 87 percent.
What happened at Lyle’s school is a good example of what can happen when a school fails to fully commit to using restorative justice techniques. Earlier in the year, Lyle was threatened by a certain student, and that student was suspended. Later, when Lyle was bullied on social media, the school tried restorative justice. After the restorative justice “sessions,” the school took the additional step of separating all of the involved students into different classes. This shows that the school didn’t trust its system of restorative justice, and begs the question: How can they expect the kids to trust it? Lyle was quick to say he had done something wrong by posting rude comments, but not all students did. He apologized. Again, not all the students did. You know you are correctly carrying out restorative justice when students aren’t afraid to admit what they have done wrong, when they are committed to understanding why a situation got to the point it did, and when they understand how to prevent it from happening again. If you aren’t committed to practicing restorative justice properly, it can damage someone’s self-esteem, making the person who was wronged feel like they aren’t important enough to be heard.
A similar situation happened at my school, The Peace and Justice Academy. Two students posted rude and hurtful things about the school on social media. Our school held a conversation with the entire student body. They showed us the posts and exactly what was said without revealing the identities of the people who had posted the hurtful comments. The students had a collective conversation about how the comments hurt us individually and as a community. Both students who had posted the comments revealed themselves and sincerely apologized. To me, this is a good example of restorative justice. None of the students felt put upon, called out, or ganged up on. We have not had another situation like this.
Restorative justice can heal or it can harm. Teachers and administrators have an opportunity to help students grow through restorative justice techniques. This will not only benefit their school and its students, but also whole communities. I encourage teachers and administrators to participate in restorative justice classes or workshops to learn the right and wrong way to use this powerful process. With restorative justice, students, teachers, and administrators will feel like they have a closer and caring community, where everyone feels respected and heard.