Sohee Lee, a student of Veronica Mittnacht at A.K. Academics in Oakland Gardens, New York, 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: Taking Matters into Others’ Hands
I remember the first day of sixth grade as if it were yesterday. None of us knew each other, and during lunch, we all started to make friends based on appearances. And by appearances, I mostly mean race. I, too, made a new “best friend;” a girl I had met in one of my classes. I sat next to her instinctively because she was Asian, like me. I felt awkward with Americans. I didn’t think I had anything in common with kids who didn’t share my cultural background. We listened to different types of music, spoke different languages at home, and were interested in different things. Well, that’s what I thought back in sixth grade, anyway.
I guess I wasn’t the only one who thought that way because cliques soon formed that persisted through seventh grade, and, now, eighth. Once again, they’re largely based on race. I think the reason my grade has organized itself that way is that most kids feel the way I did back in sixth grade— they can’t relate to people who are culturally different from them because they can’t even imagine what those people’s lives are like. The problem is that these cliques are self-sustaining. When we separate ourselves, we don’t communicate, and, as a result, we never learn to relate to people who seem different.
Since sixth grade, I’ve learned that the best friendships are based on shared interests and personalities that complement each other, not having the same background. Unfortunately, for the most part, as my classmates and I have gotten older, I see these divisions being reinforced instead of diminished. I think it’s because teenagers feel more pressure to prove that they’re adults and can handle things by themselves. When we ask for help or try to explain where we’re coming from, we’re admitting that we aren’t totally in control. And when we make the first move and share personal details that might make it easier for others to understand us, we also make ourselves vulnerable to being judged.
At this stage in our lives, when we feel like we have so much to prove, sometimes the last thing we want to do is take that first step. This is the obstacle that restorative justice circles address. When the other people in the circle promise to listen non-judgmentally, it’s much easier to let down our guard and share our perspective. And, when we see that others have problems, we feel less ashamed of our own.
In contrast, other systems of discipline only create greater divisions between students by stigmatizing failure. Suspension, in particular, makes students feel as if no one is listening to them and that people have given up on them. In the long run, the effects of this treatment can be devastating and can lead students to drop out of school or turn to crime.
The reason these punishments were established in the first place was to show students that their actions have consequences. This lesson, however, can be accomplished in less harmful ways. By hearing how they’ve made others feel, students learn first-hand how they have affected others. They also have the opportunity to share their own story and be heard. Instead of feeling isolated from the community, these students feel included in a circle of caring and supportive people
Living in an ethnically divided community has shown me how important it is to be able to relate and empathize with others, and how crucial it is for us to focus on communication if we are to overcome these differences. Since reading Fania Davis’ YES! Magazine article, “Where Dignity is Part of the School Day,” I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what my community would look like if we used restorative justice circles instead of (or before) disciplinary punishments. I can’t help but feel that we would be less divided, and that we would be more understanding of each other. School would cease to be a place of pressure and become a haven for personal growth. While we learn a lot from books at school, we could also learn about each other using restorative justice methods. Instead of a false community that we mock and resist, we could create something that we’d cherish and return to later in life because we know we will always be respected and accepted for who we are.