Several schools in Western Massachusetts have adopted aspects of restorative practices and restorative justice to help create a positive school climate, improve responses to conflicts, increase equity in discipline, and make challenges into learning opportunities.
Restorative Practices Strengthen School Community and Accountability
By Lauren Munster and Kenzie Helmick
What are Restorative Justice and Restorative Practices, and what are the benefits for school communities?
Restorative Justice (RJ) is a model that works to develop relationships that build communities grounded in mutual respect and collaborative power. RJ seeks to shift from harmful forms of punitive discipline to accountability practices that identify needs and find meaningful ways of making amends and healing when harm occurs. This can open opportunities for growth and strengthen communities.
Restorative practices (RP) is the umbrella term for ongoing activities that foster connections, belonging, and mutuality, and create the conditions for effective RJ. RP includes activities such as circle practice, youth-led team projects, social and emotional learning, and restorative culture advocacy. RP is also trauma-sensitive and explicitly anti-oppression and anti-white supremacy.
Circle practice is a restorative practice that can be used to build community and develop relationships or to respond to harm that has been caused, conflicts, and other problems within a community. In a circle, there is a formal process to make sure each person is heard, that people take turns speaking, and no one person holds the power. Online Information on Circle Practice.
What does RJ look like in practice at Amherst Regional High School?
By Lauren Munster
The RJ program at ARHS has two overarching goals. The first goal is education in the classroom about principles central to RJ and the second goal is applying that theory to practice.
There are currently two classes that support RJ practice: Social Justice and Restorative Justice. These electives give students the opportunity to not only learn about pressing issues across the country, but how to lead Circles in a manner that creates an opening for dialogue between participants.
Applying RJ theory to practice is evident in ARHS disciplinary measures. Rather than suspension or expulsion, students are often sent to the RJ office in order to have a discussion with the RJ Coordinator, Aaron Buford.
As the AmeriCorps member tasked with supporting both of these initiatives, my role overlaps with both. I often research restorative practices and group processes in order to help design and develop curriculum to support students to build an understanding of RJ. Furthermore, I assist in garnering school support for shifting the overall climate. ARHS’ advisory period is often used to build relationships and get students engaged in restorative practices. The advisory committee, including Aaron Buford and myself, work on a weekly basis to brainstorm and implement positive activities in line with RJ.
In order to shift the culture from the traditional punitive system to RJ practices, communication will be a necessity. Working across departments and administrations to implement these practices in unison will be the most advantageous route. ARHS is currently working towards the goal of expanding RJ to the local middle school. The communication across the district to expand the depth and breadth of RJ Circles and practices has led to grant applications for future school years. A long-term goal in the works is sending students who were educated through the RJ class offered at ARHS to the middle school to lead Circles in that building. This gives younger generations the ability to be accustomed to RJ at a younger age in order to start shifting the culture from punitive to restorative.
What does RJ look like in practice at Holyoke High School?
By Kenzie Helmick
The Student Support Room (SSR) and Pa’lante both operate from a trauma-informed, restorative framework that believes that students’ actions are driven by unmet needs and that care, empathy, advocacy, and support, rather than punishment, are more effective in addressing and repairing harmful behavior.
The SSR is an intentional space for this care and support to be provided. Students who are repeatedly involved in Pa’lante restorative justice (RJ) circles or conflict within the school are often some of the students who choose to visit the SSR the most. A lot of these students have experienced trauma that has taught them that connection, especially with adults, is unsafe. The SSR can be a starting point for healing that trauma as staff members build healthy and supportive relationships with students. I’ve had dozens of students share with me that the staff members from Pa’lante and the SSR are the only staff they feel comfortable talking to, because they feel truly listened to and that their struggles are met with care and not judgment.
The relationships we build in the SSR also gives us the ability, like Pa’lante, to address student behavioral issues in more restorative ways than traditional disciplinary methods. In one case, a student was physically threatening another student. The response from the teacher and administration was to have the student sent to the planning center for the rest of the day, which made her increasingly upset, potentially leading to even more escalated behavior. We were called to help the student calm down. Together, we talked and got to the root of why she was threatening the other student, something that she had struggled to express while being disciplined. We then helped her communicate this information to the administration, who was able to intervene and stop the conflict, and the student was able to stay in class for the remainder of the day without issue. Had the student not had the space to feel comfortable and work through her initial dysregulation and instead been punished, it’s likely that she would’ve still attempted to fight the student after school.
Finally, the SSR helps support the RJ efforts of Pa’lante by giving students a safe and secure space to explore self-regulation, mindfulness, and other social and emotional learning skills. Healthy and generative conflict requires students to have the skills to recognize, navigate, and communicate big feelings. In the SSR, we often incorporate conversations that can help teach these skills: discussing how feelings are experienced in the body, how we can allow our feelings to move through our bodies, and how we can ground ourselves when those feelings might be too much. Additionally, we engage in mindfulness practices, such as grounding and breathing exercises, and offer sensory and fidget tools to help maintain focus or calm while in school. Our goal is to allow students to feel empowered to work through high-stress situations, whether that be conflict with another student or a particularly challenging lesson in the classroom.
- Youth Engagement in Restorative Justice: Intergenerational Partnerships for Just and Equitable Schools. by Evelin Aquino, Heather Bligh Manchester, and Anita Wadhwa.
- Creating Restorative Schools: Setting Schools Up to Succeed. by Martha A. Brown.
- Beyond the Surface of Restorative Practices: Building a Culture of Equity, Connection, and Healing. by Marisol Quevedo Rerucha.
- Restorative Justice in Urban Schools: Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline. by Anita Wadhwa.
- Colorizing Restorative Justice: Voicing Our Realities. edited by Edward C. Valandra and Wanbli Waphaha Hoksila.
- Hacking School Discipline: 9 Ways to Create a Culture of Empathy & Responsibility using Restorative Justice. by Nathan Maynard and Brad Weinstein.
- Circle Forward by Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis
- Online Information on Circle Practice: https://www.restorecircles.love/
AmeriCorps members Lauren Munster and Kenzie Helmick are based in Amherst Regional High School and Holyoke High School, and they shared their knowledge and personal experience working in the schools for this piece. A big thanks to Lauren and Kenzie for this contribution!