Restorative justice is an ancient practice with new potential in school disciplinary settings. At its best, restorative justice, which focuses on righting wrongs through mediation, can be an alternative to the punitive “zero tolerance” strategies that recently have dominated school disciplinary policy, educators say.
“We see things as adults, but our restorative justice program helps our students see a situation kid-to-kid, and it is not coming from the principal as a directive,” said Kristen Guinn, principal of Endeavour Middle School, part of New Haven Community Schools,
which uses restorative justice in its disciplinary system. “It gives our kids the power to resolve conflicts at their level.”
The Michigan Legislature recently passed a law encouraging school districts to use restorative justice and “changes the focus of public school administration on how student discipline is addressed,” David Gillis, restorative practices coordinator at New Haven Community Schools, wrote in a recent op-ed published in the Times Herald.
Restorative justice can be an alternative to “zero tolerance” policies that mandated stiff penalties.
“There was a feeling on the part of a lot of legislators that maybe they went too far in the past by allowing, or even requiring, stiffer penalties for students in disciplinary situations,” commented Gillis. “It really reached a point where there was a zero tolerance atmosphere that existed in schools.”
According to Gillis, restorative justice originated with Native American “talking circles” and Aboriginal tribes in Australia, and it famously was used to heal divisions between racial groups following the end of apartheid in South Africa.
Yet Gillis uses this ancient practice on a daily basis with students at Endeavour Middle School and New Haven High School.
“The term ‘restorative’ really relates to restoring relationships and allowing all parties to a situation to discover what harm was done and what can be done to rectify it,” he said. With Gillis as a mediator, students referred for restorative justice in New Haven Community Schools talk through incidents — for instance, a fight at school or bullying on social media—express how it made them feel, admit wrongdoing and create a plan for avoiding similar incidents in the future. Gillis crafts a written plan to which both students agree and sign.
The practice serves as a supplement to more traditional forms of discipline like in-school or out-of-school suspension. For instance, a student who successfully completes a restorative justice negotiation with Gillis mediating might serve two days of a three-day suspension.
“We want to keep kids in school,” said New Haven Community Schools Superintendent Todd Robinson. “They can’t learn if they’re not here. It does have an indirect link to improving academic achievement.”
As the restorative practices coordinator for New Haven Community Schools, Gillis is working with youth for the first time. He spent a career in business mediation before retiring for a short period of time — retirement simply didn’t take. Gillis began to seek out classes in restorative justice and even spent some time as a court mediator. The former instructor at Baker College is now an employee of The Resolution Center in Mount Clemens and has contracted with New Haven Community Schools as its restorative practices coordinator for the past five years.
Guinn commented that restorative justice adds “another layer or dimension” that helps students “see each other’s points of view.”
Not only is Gillis a mediator, but he has trained students at Endeavour Middle School and at New Haven High School to serve as mediators in the practice of restorative justice. Endeavour Middle School recently graduated its first class of young mediators. With Gillis’ supervision, the student mediators help their fellow students negotiate restorative justice, diving into situations to talk about what happened, what harm was done and how to rectify it. They hail from a wide variety of backgrounds, according to Gillis, and are respected by their fellow students.
The class of 2016-2017 Endeavour Peacemakers includes Keirra Dilbert, Quinton Folson, Rylee Gurley, Sydney Romain and Hunter Zuk. Jason Hann and Kristina Moran serve as faculty advisors for the group while David Gillis is the coordinator/coach.
As student mediators fan out through the hallways of Endeavour Middle School and New Haven High School, Gillis said he has seen a change in atmosphere, particularly at the high school, since restorative justice has been implemented.
“It’s a different school,” Gillis said of New Haven High School.
Meg LeDuc is a freelance reporter. She can be contacted
at email@example.com. She can be followed on Twitter at @megleduc5
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