student success

When Restorative Justice Is Done Right, It Can Make Schools Safer, Even When Your Kid Is the Victim

The day another kid tried to choke my daughter, it would have been easy to go full-force Mama Bear and demand a suspension. But it wouldn’t have solved the problem. What really worked was a safety plan coupled with plenty of talks among both students and their friends at their classroom Peace Table. As a parent, I’m here to tell you that restorative justice, done right, can make school a safer and more welcoming place even when your kid has been a victim. That’s a point the usual arguments miss. While one side argues that restorative justice can help end the school-to-prison-pipeline, the other says that eliminating suspensions makes schools more dangerous for the kids who are just trying to stay out of trouble and learn. When eliminating suspensions comes without sufficient training and experience with restorative justice practices, then yes, misbehavior is likely to rise and can make schools less safe. It’s also likely that schools facing the biggest challenges—those where kids are misbehaving and adults are already struggling to manage behavior, as shown by high rates of suspension and surveys showing poor school climate—are the least ready to shift gears without a lot of additional support. But in a school that was founded to create a peaceful environment, restorative justice can really work. Here’s how.

When Problems Arose at Recess, Kids Took It to the Peace Table

When I picked up my third-grader after work and asked about her day, she hung her head and told me, “My day went terrible. The teacher sent you an email. I want you to read it before I tell you about it.” Of course, I badgered her with questions. Yes, something happened with another student. No, she didn’t get in trouble. (She has never been in serious trouble for behavior.) Once I knew the basics, I bit my tongue and waited until we got home. Then I read the email, headed “Incident in Recess Today.” Without using names, the teacher explained that a gossip situation had gotten out of hand and one of my daughter’s classmates had tried to force her into revealing what the others were saying. The classmate put a hand on my daughter’s throat to try to force information out of her. Other girls in their class separated them quickly, and my daughter ran away to safety. Back in the classroom, the girls took themselves to the classroom Peace Table and talked about it with their teacher. She emailed me afterwards to let me know what had happened and pledge the school’s support for my daughter. The email was cc’d to half a dozen other staff who help with safety and discipline.

We Kept the Focus on My Daughter’s Safety, Not on Punishing Another Kid

After I read the email, my daughter and I had a long talk about what she would need to feel safe in school the next day. I asked if she felt safe where she normally sits and she said, no, she would need a change, but just for that one day. I asked if she felt safe when the class moved from the classroom to other activities, and she said she would need support in the lines to and from gym and recess to make sure she and her classmate were far away from each other. I emailed these requests to her teacher and got a positive response within the hour. We also agreed that her dad and I would come in and all three of us would meet briefly in the morning to review the safety plan and make sure we were all on the same page. In the morning, her dad and I walked her into school and then met with her teacher. The teacher let us know that the school is working with the classmate and her family to make sure she gets the behavioral support she needs to interact safely and positively with other students, but we didn’t focus on that very long. Our focus was on making sure my daughter would be safe that day and every day forward.

Restorative Justice Takes A Community

So far, our plans are working. And the Peace Table discussions keep reaping rewards. Two days after the incident, after another Peace Table conversation, my daughter let me know that her classmate had apologized to her. They have known each other since kindergarten and have had plenty of friendly moments as well as occasional disputes. After this incident and the apology, my daughter and her classmate exchanged small gifts as a gesture of friendship. They did that on their own, without prompting from a teacher or another adult. Their interaction illustrates some key principles of restorative justice:
  • Violence causes harm and justice requires repairing the harm.
  • The best way to decide how to repair harm is to have all willing parties involved come together and decide on repairs jointly.
  • Repairs include making amends.
  • Repairs also include repairing relationships and reintegrating victims and offenders back into the community.
It’s not easy to create environments where restorative justice can take hold. Our school is not perfect. I have heard complaints from other parents that consequences can feel arbitrary or uneven. We’ve had staff transitions that haven’t always made it easy to create consistent discipline practices that help families feel safe and supported. But Namaste’s long-term commitment to restorative justice has built a foundation that stands the test of time. I’m glad my daughter is learning the skills to repair and rebuild relationships even when violent conflicts erupt.
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an ...

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