Spring 2014: “Restorative Justice” Middle School Winner Reagan Elliff

Read Reagan's essay about how her karate skills helped her classmate get the support he needed.

Reagan Elliff, a student of Melissa Macdonald at the Wildflower Open Classroom Adolescent Program in Chico, 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 in school 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?


Understanding Punishment


Fania Davis, author of the YES! Magazine article “Where Dignity is Part of the School Day,” writes about how Tommy, a high school student in Oakland, California, received help during a trying time in his life. His school, his teacher, and a program whose mission is to help prevent young adults from becoming part of the prison system, ultimately saved this boy. Tommy was given a chance to speak without judgment and explain what was going on in his home. The school was able to contact his mother and arrange for her to be involved. With the help of a “talking stick,” a flood of pain and worries was released.  Tommy grew up with a mom who was addicted to drugs and often absent, leaving him to take care of his siblings. When Tommy finally expressed his feelings, the adults in the room were able to help him.

Something similar happened when I was in the second grade. One day at school, a boy named Markus came up to me and said, “I’m taking karate and I can beat you up.” At the time I was taking karate lessons too. I told him I didn’t want to fight, but he kept being aggressive towards me.  Suddenly Markus’ foot was headed toward my stomach. I instinctively blocked his kick. My leg made contact with his groin, and he went down to his knees. Before I left for class, I made sure that Markus got up and returned to his classroom. I didn’t think much more about it.

During class, my teacher asked me to step outside. I was scared; I had never gotten in trouble before. She said that Markus’ teacher had called the principal and they were waiting for me in the classroom next door. The principal and the other teacher accused me of using karate to attack another student. They talked to me about the “no fighting” rule and said that I could be suspended. Suddenly my heart rose to my throat, leaving me speechless. I looked at my teacher for help.

Fortunately, I had an understanding teacher who knew me well.  She wanted me to tell my side of the story and clarify what exactly happened. I explained that I tried to walk away, and that Markus kept following me. When he attacked me, I defended myself.  I didn’t think it was fighting because I wasn’t being aggressive. In fact, I did exactly what karate is intended for—to defend myself. I used karate not to attack Markus, but to block his kick.

The principal and teacher let me go back to class. I assumed they were deciding my punishment. It was hard not knowing what was going to happen to me.  I found out later that the principal and Markus’ teacher spoke to Markus. He admitted that I hadn’t started anything, and that I was innocent. The meeting also revealed that Markus not only was struggling in school, but also had behavior issues at home. Like in Fania Davis’ article, the principal brought together Markus’ mother and teacher to get to the root of Markus’ anger. After lengthy discussions, it was decided that Markus would repeat his grade so he could mature and become more confident in himself.





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