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Restorative justice

Michael Bunitsky
Frederick County Board of Education

(4/2018) Maybe youíve heard about "restorative justice" around your schools lately. The term "restorative practices" may sound familiar and you probably know something about the process of mediation. If this all sounds new to you, Iíll share what I know.

In 2017 the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation creating the Maryland Commission on School-to-Prison Pipeline and Restorative Practices. I was asked to represent the Maryland Association of Boards of Education on that Commission. We have been charged with working toward:

  • Eliminating disparities in discipline practices,
  • Creating a supportive and nurturing school climate,
  • Providing training and professional development,
  • Partnering with community organizations, and
  • Engaging students and families.

In Commission meetings I have been exposed to the variety of ways in which school discipline is handled across Maryland. There are more variations than I imagined. Infractions like assault, possession of some forms of contraband on school property, destruction of school or personal property demand a serious response from any school system, but there isnít total agreement on the best response.

Of course, nearly everyone agrees that these actions create an unsafe environment and are not to be tolerated in Maryland schools or really, anywhere in society. And individual school administrators are charged with investigating and putting consequences in place. But the Commission is tasked with attending to these challenging issues with thoughtful questions, open conversation, and responses that make sense.

Most often the consequence for such actions is suspension from school. Outside of the school environment, we rarely think about the behind the scenes work that is involved coming to such a decision. Human behavior is complex and there are many possible motives for specific actions. Add to this the expectation that punishments in school are meant to be a learning experience, right?

In addition to running a fine tuned educational environment, we expect school administrators to exercise the wisdom of Solomon. Fortunately, many of our teachers, principals, and staff are wise in the ways of our kids. They understand that their purpose is not to extract a pound of flesh, but to mediate misunderstandings and offer students an opportunity for insight and change; important steps in repairing relationships and restoring equilibrium.

Most educators are looking for more productive responses than a few days of suspension. This is where restorative justice comes in. Restorative justice is not a system of punishments, it is a practice that holds students accountable for their actions and asks them to imagine more appropriate responses. It is a process designed to help students understand what it is like walk in another personís shoes. Restorative practices push kids to take more thoughtful action in the future. Ultimately the goal is to get kids to own up to what they have done, seek forgiveness, and then demonstrate that they have learned through the experience.

Okay, so you believe the only way a young person learns is through harsh punishment. But one has to wonder, is kicking them OUT of school for a while really punishment? If a student doesnít have to face the person or people they have hurt by their actions, never really has to apologize, or make an attempt at repairing a fractured relationship, what have they learned? If they are never confronted with the reality of what their actions caused will they see what they did as a bad thing as it gets them time away from school.

Some of the answers to these questions depend on the familyís response. But that is the topic for another articleóand sometimes the parents are part of the problem.

Our school system has 42,000 students and it is our job to teach them. Each of our students brings the totality of their life experience with them to our schools, to our classrooms and in their interactions with others every single day. Some of our students have had more than their share of adverse experiences. How those experiences are acted upon is fairly limited in children ages five through seven. I guess thatís why the state of Maryland determined we should not use suspension as a punishment for them.

Do we really believe that suspension works better for upper elementary, middle and high school students?

Donít get me wrong, as a classroom teacher for about twenty-one years I knew some who needed to be suspended. But there are many actions that occur in our schools that are not physical acts of violence or destruction. What about these other behaviors that account for the majority of our office referrals and a large portion of our suspensions? Insubordination, disrespect, and disruption; we know these behaviors can be interpreted differently by the adults involved.

When students arrive in our schools they may be hungry, or may have never known hunger. Some students show up wearing the same clothes day after day and others never wear the same clothes twice. Some children live in neighborhoods that are not safe, and attend school with students who have never known how that feels. Add to this mix, the fact that the adults who interact with them are mostly white and mostly female. Every school day unfolds in a cultural stew that at itís best is a stimulating environment for exploration and learning. But it can also bring moments of complete breakdown in understanding and perspective.

Schools are for learning. Everyone in our schools, physical plant staff, teaching staff, administrators and our children, all are learning together every day. Some of the best learning is about how to coexist and cooperate while meeting the academic challenges of tomorrow.

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