If you ever wanted a crash course on school-based restorative justice practices, then I urge you to watch this panel.
I recently attended the “Re-Thinking Discipline: What Schools Are Trying and Learning,” breakout session at the NewSchools Summit, and it was hands down one of the best discussions I’ve witnessed in a long while. It was moderated by former U.S. Education Secretary John King, and each panelist—Amanda Aiken, Anita Wadhwa, Eldridge Geer, Ric Zappa, and Valissia Allen—are school or district administrators with tons of experience with implementing restorative discipline practices in schools.
I won’t recap the entire panel here, but I want to highlight the fact that the discussion was amazingly spiritual. They talked about how they instruct their students to extend “grace” to their misbehaving classmates; how teachers have to learn to “forgive” their students. Notions of “redemption” echoed from the panel at one point. And the idea that consequences for poor behavior are meted out in “love,” with the hope that the accountability to others in the school community would lead to “reconciliation.”
I almost shouted “Amen” at one point, forgetting that I was at an education conference and not sitting on a pew at church.
Restorative Justice Isn’t a Program, It’s a Mindset
As the founder and president of Teachers Who Pray, I’m keenly aware that all those attributes are fruits of the spirit in the Bible (Galatians 5: 22-23). It takes the adults in the school building being firmly rooted in transcendent core beliefs to implement and sustain such a spiritually demanding student discipline model.
Perhaps that’s why restorative justice practices are so often poorly done. It takes structure; students and teachers should know that there’s a system in place when things go wrong that they can rely on.
It also takes training. The National Conference on Community and Restorative Justice will take place on June 16-18 in Oakland, California with a pre-conference on June 15 and post-conference training sessions on June 20-23 and 26-29.
One thing the panel taught me is that restorative justice in schools is not a program. It cannot be rolled out in one big scoop, and it cannot be confined as the sole responsibility of the dean of discipline. It must be a school-wide disposition or mindset.
Teachers and students alike have to buy into the idea that no one is a lost cause but that misbehaving students can be restored to the person/community they hurt through peer juries, peace circles, and consequences that point them towards wholeness.
For example, as the principal of Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep in New Orleans, Amanda Aiken gave her students the power to determine when a misbehaving student was allowed to return back into class. She also allowed students to interview and have a say in the hiring of any teacher or administrator who sought employment at her school.
Aiken credits her trauma informed and restorative practices for helping to catapult Crocker College Prep from being the lowest-performing school in New Orleans to being the most improved.
There are myriad statistics that prove that Black students are disproportionately suspended and expelled under “zero-tolerance” school discipline models. This leads to higher dropout rates, which leads to greater poverty and incarceration rates.
I wish every teacher preparation program and school district in America invested in restorative justice professional development for teachers and principals. Like most spiritual things, it challenges our natural, more rational, way to solve problems. However, this approach to disciplining children will have more positive outcomes for their body, mind and soul.