Bringing Restorative Justice to Schools Must Start With Community

Jeanne A. Curley

There was no emotion on the eighth grader’s face. No anger, no sadness, no frustration. Her body sat rigidly upright in the chair in the principal’s office, motionless. Her eyes focused on a point straight ahead, far away.

“Esme,” the principal said (and this is not the student’s real name). “Can you start from the beginning? What happened at the start of P.E. class?”

Silence.

Across from Esme, another student sat (we’ll call him Eduardo), shoulders hunched, eyes focused dejectedly on the carpet. As the seconds ticked by, Esme seemed to stiffen as Eduardo sank deeper into himself.

The day before, during what would be the last P.E. class of the school year, actually their last P.E. class as a middle school student, Esme had pursued Eduardo across campus with a set of classroom scissors, sharp end out. What had started as a seemingly fun water balloon fight—one that the students had persuaded the P.E. teacher to allow—quickly descended into a breach of each and every tenet of our school’s Core Values.

In many schools, including ours, there has been a shift of how student behaviors are regulated—moving away from rules-based standards to ones driven by a set of values determined by the desired climate and culture of each school. For our school, that includes a shift from a punishment-driven model to restorative practice-driven approaches to managing student discipline, part of a nationwide trend as schools work to improve culture and climate.

Restorative practices are based on the understanding that, as one much-cited paper about the practice explains, “re-orientating students toward participatory decision-making, focusing on building relationships, and reconceptualizing discipline to address and repair (rather than punish) the harm caused” can serve as the base to bring students together rather than the more traditional route of isolation and removal through suspension or expulsion. Our school was at the start of this process in early 2020 and when COVID-19 hit, our newly adopted Core Values had not yet been formally introduced to the school community.

The collective strain, stress and trauma of the pandemic on our students and families transformed student behavior, leading to a shocking rise in behavioral challenges and social-emotional struggles. Moments of anger between students morphed from mere shoving into pinning another student to the ground by her neck with his hands. Instead of wearing new Yeezys shoes to attract attention, a student carried a loaded gun into the classroom concealed in the pocket of his hoodie. And, in the case of Esme, the intention of a male peer to hit her with a water balloon was perceived as a threat severe enough to warrant brandishing a pair of scissors as a weapon.

These behaviors we teachers saw at school are only the visible tips of the icebergs of a student’s unique experience—the cultural, emotional, and psychological matter that makes a person. This concept of the “Cultural Iceberg” was introduced in 1976 by Edward T. Hall as a way of understanding that the easily visible aspects of a culture makes up only 10 percent of that culture, and the remaining 90 percent are considered the “invisible” aspects of a culture’s values and beliefs. This concept can also be applied when observing the behaviors of students returning to schools. What each child experienced when schools were shut essentially altered the 90 percent underneath. In essence, each student who entered my classroom in the fall of 2021 was not the same one who left in March of 2020.

This is why we, as a school, started the 2021-22 school year by revisiting our Core Values, and we were invested in realigning classroom norms to fit the values of trust, safety, respect, inclusion and belonging as the foundation for student-to-student and student-to-staff interactions. As students returned from distance learning, these values were posted on the walls of each middle school classroom. Every teacher dedicated class time to discussing each value and its applications to classroom learning.

However, conversations and posters would prove to act only as band-aids–ones that looked good, but did nothing to heal broken relationships or broken people.

Esme had breached all our Core Values in that brief but spectacularly explosive three minutes of anger. At that moment, Esme was not thinking about Core Values; Esme was reacting to months and months of stress caused by negative peer dynamics and division in classroom relationships, some of which began when schools closed.

What we initially decided as a middle school team along with our administration and members of our board, was to bar Esme from all graduation-related activities and the graduation ceremony. But in taking that step, we did not have the time to ask the question: What did WE miss, ignore or misunderstand? We chose to exclude and isolate, rather than to repair and restore.

With Esme and Eduardo, we did what we thought was right. We informed both sets of parents, we had individual conversations to collect information and better understand the intentions of each student, we met extensively as a teaching and administrative team, and we unanimously agreed that we did not have the time to fully engage in the restorative process in this case.

Excluding Esme was a quick fix; it was, on the outside, the “cleanest” way out of a situation where one student was perceived to have put the rest at harm. Though that decision to exclude Esme did not feel good to many of us, with less than a week until graduation, we could not figure out how to make things right. More importantly, we realized that what we saw was only 10 percent of the iceberg and it would require the time we did not have to consider the 90 percent below the surface.

The principal and I brought Esme and Eduardo together into the same room so each could see how the event affected the other. However, their body language told us everything we needed to know: there was no basis of relationship for restoration to happen because work had not been done to encourage a relationship or provide the scaffold to build it; one student came into the meeting exhibiting defeat, the other with walls of titanium 30 feet high around her. Neither had the agency to repair or desire to reconcile. Both had given up or given in. There was no “relational store,” as is said in such work, to restore.

To me, this situation and others I’ve seen in recent months, indicate that sharing the physical space of a classroom is no longer enough to establish relationships of trust among students and between students and teachers. Perhaps it has never been enough. But in order for restorative practices to take place in a meaningful way, educators have to be intentional about creating a space where students feel known.

The simple act of greeting each child individually as they enter the room is often enough for each student to feel seen. Asking students to share personal values and make personal connections to the curriculum through writing encourages students to reflect on their experiences. Taking the time to respond to student writing not only deepens understanding of materials, but deepens our understanding of our students. Taking time to practice listening builds empathy, and when students understand each other’s stories, each student is less alone.

Last school year was overwhelming. We were compensating for learning loss, staff shortages and absences due to COVID, as well as deeply traumatized students who were once again asked to get back to “normal.”

The reality is that our focus should have been to restore community and relationships by acknowledging to ourselves and our students: Something difficult has happened to us, let’s talk about it. We must take the time to learn about one another again and understand how the pandemic has changed what lies underneath the surface.

Had we had the appropriate training, time and emotional stamina to redo the disciplinary process, the entire eighth grade class and their parents would have participated in the restoration process. We would, together, work towards including Esme rather than excluding her. The stakeholders deserved as much a voice as the small group of teachers and administrators who made the final decision. Restoration requires the community and not just the few individuals directly involved.

In order for restorative practices to be effective—which I believe they can be—teachers and administration must prioritize relationships, among staff members and among students. Schools must carve out time to focus on community before academic content if we have any hope of moving forward and establishing the safe learning environment of inclusion and belonging that each child needs—and deserves.

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