Visiting educators and community members are a common sight at Big Picture School in the Highline School District, where I serve as principal. These visitors are interested in thinking differently about public schools, and they often ask about our use of a discipline approach called restorative justice — how it works, if it is worth the resources, and if it appears scalable to larger schools or districts.
My short answer to all of the above: Absolutely.
About five years ago, an 11th-grade student named Laura Jimenez Guerra introduced me to restorative justice and proposed giving suspended students the option of reducing their time out of school by meeting with a panel of community members to address the harm caused by their actions. At multiple times during the process, we remind students the entire ordeal is optional and depends upon their willingness to participate actively and own their actions.
The ensuing conference brings the student together with one or two of the identified allies and community members representing different types of harm resulting from the student’s choices. With the support of these individuals, the student goes through three steps:
- identifying his or her thinking leading up to, through, and after the event(s)
- understanding and validating the harm or potential harm caused by the student’s choices
- generating ways to address and restore the harm.
The most powerful part of restorative justice often occurs when the student gains a deeper understanding of his or her role in the community. In one such instance, two students who drank alcohol on a retreat were profoundly affected when their allies shared their own struggles dealing with the effects of alcoholism at home.
After the conference, the panel creates a contract the student must complete in order to “close the case.” With the help of students, staff, and family members, Laura’s project has grown into a set of restorative practices increasingly infused across the school. At the same time, our discipline rate has dropped from more than 700 assigned days of suspension in 2011-2012 to fewer than 10 this year.
Restorative justice takes time, but it can also save time. As principal, I spend far less time on discipline matters using restorative justice, and students often mediate conflicts before they escalate.
The benefits of restorative practices are numerous. Aside from the obvious benefits to the students who would otherwise be suspended, students and staff who participate in the panels or circles have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the power of community and the stories behind unhealthy choices.
I’ve seen students who rarely spoke to each other become close friends through a restorative panel. I’ve seen adults astonished by the power of student voice. I’ve even learned communication strategies that help me mediate conflict at home and outside of work.
All of these strategies obviously take time, resources, and a commitment to staff development. Sometimes the panel implodes, and we have to pick up the pieces and regroup. Teachers and families often struggle with the ambiguity of the process, and occasionally it doesn’t seem to work. It certainly has taken a lot of faith, patience and challenging conversations.
At Big Picture, we do not view restorative practices as a program but rather a long term commitment to the way we operate. Even though the approach isn’t perfect, I’m confident we can achieve a zero suspension rate through the ongoing commitment of students and staff.
Loren Demeroutis is principal at Big Picture High School in the Highline School District.