Moving toward restorative justice

  • A small fire in the bathroom at Concord High School last yeat caused the student body to be evacuated. Caitlin Andrews

Monitor staff
Published: 7/5/2020 2:38:11 PM

If a student is being mouthy and deliberately disobedient in a New Hampshire high school, chances are the punishment will be an out-of-school suspension with a strict warning to stay away from school property or else the police will be called.

In the Concord School District, a new method for handling student misbehavior is in the works that administrators say will not only address the misbehavior but the root of the problem as well, without removing students from the classroom. The method is restorative justice, a system that involves mediation and dialogue, relationship restoration and repairing harm done by misbehavior.

“We really try to do a deep dive into the student’s situation and be fair in what we are doing. We think bringing in restorative practices will help us do that,” said Tim Herbert, assistant principal at Concord High School. Herbert has studied restorative practices extensively for the past six years.

“‘Come into my office and have a restorative conference’ versus ‘come into my office, you have in-school suspension for two days because that’s the prescribed consequence.’ They are two very different experiences,” said Herbert. “You are going to walk out of my office with two very different impressions of me, and you might not be willing to access me as a positive resource down the road when you could use my help for something meaningful.”

Almost all New Hampshire schools currently use traditional methods of discipline, where students misbehave and are given a punishment like a detention or a suspension and serve their time. Data shows the most severe discipline – out-of-school suspensions and expulsions – are used disproportionately against students of color in districts across the Granite State  

“There is a time when discipline is necessary,” said James McKim, president of Manchester NAACP. “But the way it is done needs to be done carefully and equitably and moving in a positive direction, helping the students and the situation be positively resolved rather than negatively resolved, resulting in trauma for some of these students who may not recover. They may not be as resilient as we might like them to be.”

When students are prevented from learning, studies have shown it furthers inequities that already exist in society.

“Exclusionary discipline by definition removes a student from the classroom, making them more likely to fall behind in schoolwork, perform more poorly as a result, and disengage from their peers and from educational activities,” Jeanne Hruska, ACLU New Hampshire political director, said in a statement. “In effect, the racial disparities in the use of exclusionary discipline can contribute to similar disparities in those who enter the school-to-prison pipeline and to racial inequality in education. In a state where students have a constitutional right to an adequate education, it is worth considering how the use of exclusionary discipline impairs that right.”

The idea of switching to a restorative model in Concord had been in the works for two years, and administrators were beginning to discuss the topic again in March just before COVID-19 hit, according to Assistant Superintendent Donna Palley. But recent discussions stemming from a community conversation on racial equity have renewed the effort.

Restorative justice hinges on the idea of students being voluntary participants in taking responsibility for their own misbehaviors, working on their relationships with their peers and staff members, discussing the harm that they did and making an active decision about how they will fix the problem. It tries to steer schools away from practices like in-school and out-of-school suspensions, that prevent students from learning.

In an email, Jonathan Kidde, a Vermont-based restorative justice advocate who has led professional development sessions on restorative justice for the New Hampshire School Principals Association, explained that when relationships are built and there is a feeling of connectedness between students and schools, school administrators are able to make better informed choices about how to respond to the students’ misbehaviors.

“Relationship building and inclusion in decision making helps to facilitate connection to school,” Kidde said. “I am an advocate of schools not just using restorative justice for discipline reform and to address things when they go wrong, but to first focus on applying restorative principles to ensure things go right.”

Pittsfield School District implemented a restorative justice model for its middle and high school in 2014 and is the only district in New Hampshire that uses the method fully. In Pittsfield’s model, students who misbehaved can opt to go before a justice committee, a panel of student volunteers, teachers and a support specialist, for mediation instead of traditional punishment.

Derek Hamilton is Pittsfield’s dean of operations, who handles attendance and behavior. When his district first adopted a restorative justice model, he was on staff there as a social studies teacher. Pittsfield had been categorizing disciplinary infractions on a scale of 100 to 600, where a lower offense would warrant a demerit, while a higher offense would warrant a suspension.

“We had high numbers of in- and out-of-school suspensions,” Hamilton said. “Students who were frequent offenders didn’t buy into the process. Sending me home – out of sight, out of mind – is one way to fix the problem but won’t really help long term.”

In Pittsfield’s model, a student who has misbehaved will sit down with the justice committee to talk through the issue and hear from people who may have been harmed by their actions.

“I think some students see that there’s a process to work through a concern, versus just being given a leveled offense and a number of hours that they have to serve,” Hamilton said. “I think it brings together more investment in relationships, whether that is fixing a relationship with a peer or fixing a relationship with a staff member or faculty.”

In the restorative justice model, the Pittsfield’s justice committee decides how the student perpetrator should resolve the issue on a case-by-case basis, depending on what occurred in the mediation meeting.

For example, in cases where a student has sent a hurtful or insensitive text message to someone else – cell phone or technology violations come up fairly often, Hamilton said – the student perpetrator may be required to apologize to the victim he had sent the remark to, and anyone else who may have been harmed. In one case, a student prepared a research presentation on digital citizenship and good practices for younger students to follow online.

Sometimes Pittsfield students bring teachers before the justice committee, if they have a concern or feel they are being treated unfairly in class.

“I think it brings about better long-term engagement, rather than a student just coming back to class next week after serving a suspension with a looming cloud of ‘something happened last week but it isn’t really solved,’” Hamilton said. “Now there is a system built in so people can have these conversations and have a plan to move forward.”

When it comes to being mediated by a jury of one’s peers, there are issues of privacy and conflict-of-interest that schools must address. Pittsfield student justice committee volunteers excuse themselves from working on cases where their friends are involved.

And of course there are infractions that even strong proponents of restorative models agree are too severe to be solved through in-school mediation alone. Hamilton said serious infractions like arson, bomb threats or weapon possession would be handled using traditional out-of-school discipline or police involvement, a more zero-tolerance approach.

Pittsfield School District, which has a combined total of 248 students in the middle and high school, operates on a very different scale from Concord, which has 1,520 students in the high school and 947 at Rundlett Middle School.

But Herbert says examples of successful restorative justice programs in large city school districts across the country like Boston, Chicago, Denver and San Diego show it is possible anywhere.

“There are huge success stories within those districts that lead me to believe there is no reason we can’t bring this to Concord High School,” Herbert said.

Hamilton said one thing Pittsfield learned throughout the process is to make sure faculty and staff are trained in the approach first and are on board with the approach and the theory before introducing it to students, instead of training everyone at once.

“We might have gone too big right away,” he said. “I think you’ve got to make sure the staff is on board with the approach and the theory of it first in order for them to help get the buy-in from the student population too.”

Concord High School administrators will be discussing restorative justice and racial equity at a retreat later this month and will continue to develop a plan over the summer. Herbert says he hopes to implement at least a few restorative practices as early as this fall semester.

“I think it will be successfully implemented in Concord,” Herbert said. “It all comes down to quality training and people committing to the philosophy.”

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