Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Restorative Justice programs in schools

A student recommends restorative justice programs in schools. 

Effective policies targeting students’ deviant behavior are desperately sought after in response to increasingly high numbers of suspension and expulsion within schools across the United States. Students attending school naturally come from a widely diverse home environment and unfortunately, many students who lack strong emotional support find themselves struggling to establish and maintain healthy relationships within the school system. Usually, it is these kids who engage in bullying behaviors and “stir the pot” so to speak.

The Restorative Justice program is a revolutionary technique which aims at repairing relationships harmed by students who lack the social skills necessary to successfully handle conflict. This program provides a safe environment within a school system allowing the instigator and the victim(s) to talk through the situation with other support personnel present. Typically, if a school fight has ensued between students, affected students will be afforded the opportunity to meet in a “restorative” circle format and the student who may have provoked the incident will hear how his/her actions affected the other involved individuals. Additionally, the student who provoked the situation will be given the chance to explain their perspective of things and hopefully, verbalize factors that may be contributing to their aggressive behavior; this is when additional services may be provided to the student who find themselves in frequent conflict with others. Normally, the automatic response to students expressing violent behavior is an automatic suspension or expulsion from school. This response is often counter-productive because:
(a) the student is then banned from attending school for specific amount of time, which in turn poses a problem for their working parents;
(b) the student is missing out on school work;
(c) simple suspensions or expulsions do not target the problem behavior and simply act as a ‘punishment’.
One particular school in Oakland, CA has seen a reduction in suspension/expulsions by over 50% since implementing the Restorative Justice program; this is an extremely reassuring statistic indicating the program is successful.

Recently, our own district in Chillicothe, IL has adopted this program, and I am excited to see how it affects students within the district. My own daughter who was in 6th grade last year was subjected to several incidents involving a group of girls who didn’t necessarily “bully” her, but were verbally cruel at times and disrespectful to authoritative figures within the school. After meeting with my daughter's teacher, she admitted to not really feeling like she had much control over the situation because talking to these particular girls parents’ did not appear to do any good; she choose to just ignore the situation and allow my daughter to be miserable at school. This prompted action on my part with the principal and after significant research, I suggested this Restorative Justice program be implemented, to which he responded he had already began looking into it; fast forward to this school year: we now have the program!

If we hope to improve the fabric of our society, the vital areas begin at home—this is most challenging to address—and within the school where school administrators really do have so much more behavior modifying opportunities at their fingertips than they probably realize. I would love to see policies enacted that could involve parents more with the school and even offer parental support groups sponsored by the districts. Problem with that sort of program is funding; Illinois is broke and funds simply aren’t there.

The Restorative Justice program is an effective problem solving technique proving its success throughout several locations across the United States and is continuing to gain popularity. This program provides a strong framework that fosters problem solving skills along with effective techniques to improve social skills. 

There was a good article in The Atlantic late last year about this. I understand that the Springfield School District 186 is also trying to use some of these restorative justice techniques in the schools. One of the race unity groups in town was advocating for this, and I believe some reporting by Dusty Rhodes helped create the public support for it.  It’s a good topic, and it relates to many issues in social work. 

You make some important points I’ll repeat here:
  1. people in schools do not always recognize how they could adopt practices that would (or at least, might) powerfully influence the students in their schools.  People from outside the schools can give support and encouragement, or work with school administrators and school boards to make everyone aware of potential programs that might make a difference.
  2. the technology of “Restorative Justice programs” seem to reduce the behaviors that lead to expulsions or suspensions.  The program seems to target the skill of empathy, helping students feel more compassion for others, while also building social relationships.  It works partly on peer pressure. 
  3. Many students who harm other students at school have serious issues in their home life, and rather than addressing the problems at home or in school, it seems easier to just suspend or expel those students, which is a way of “throwing them away” or letting them take responsibility for their own action.  However, if we put more effort into programs to deal with their emotional problems and help them build empathy and social connection, we may be able to help them, thus rehabilitating them and making the school and classroom climate healthier for everyone. Schools need resources (staff with expertise and time to conduct the programs, and the money to train and pay them) to do this.  All that we need is the political will to allocate resources to this sort of intervention and the administrative skill to see that the practices that work best are actually implemented. 

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