By Victoria Mullen
Thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Steelcase Foundation, the Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan (DRCWM) will further develop its Restorative Justice Program for Lee Middle School in Wyoming, Kelloggsville Middle School and Wyoming High School over the next two years.
Spearheaded by its executive director, Christine Gilman, DRCWM began its restorative justice program at Lee Middle School in the fall of 2013. The services target students, staff and the community.
The Steelcase grant will also provide funding to have the three current facilitators become licensed by the International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP). Once licensed, the facilitators will be available to train “Introduction to Restorative Practices” and “Using Circles Effectively” to school administrators, teachers and others who wish to invest in the training so that they can join the paradigm shift away from punitive methods of discipline and towards restorative solutions to problematic behavior.
Why restorative justice?
Bullying and out-of-control conflict at home or school have far-reaching consequences, with negative effects on communities and society. Without intervention and support, such negative exposure can inhibit youths’ emotional and cognitive development, prohibit healing, lead to serious health issues later in life and may perpetuate the cycle of violence.
“If you just get suspended, the fight is still going to be going on in your head,” said Gilman. “When you come back to school, you’ll probably be 10 times angrier than when you left.
In addition to quelling disputes and developing proactive plans to address misbehavior, restorative practices positively influence the school environment by teaching effective, non-violent ways to handle anger, frustration, and conflict. Restorative practices foster the development of empathy, which creates a more caring and safe environment.
According to the Council of State Governments, during 2012-2013, Michigan students with disabilities lost 190,036 days of instruction due to suspensions and expulsions. Students who are removed from the classroom as punishment are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out or enter the juvenile justice system. In monetary terms, every student who drops out is estimated to lose $250,000 in lifetime earnings, according to the Michigan Student Advocacy Center.
What restorative justice does
A school-based restorative justice program provides an early intervention for youth who are beginning to demonstrate problematic or delinquent behavior. When students are suspended, they are not learning, and they are not resolving the issues that led to suspension.
Often the issues that led to suspension are exacerbated during the student’s absence from school. Further, students who are harmed by others are not typically addressed in school disciplinary measures; whereas in circles they can express their feelings, make suggestions for reparations, and learn more about why the incident occurred. Additionally, circles allow students to take responsibility for their actions, face up to what they have done, apologize and make amends—actions which are likewise not part of traditional discipline.
Restorative practices (including facilitative conferences and circles) offer a holistic approach to school discipline and problem solving. These practices been proven to decrease the number of suspension/expulsion days and disproportionately higher suspension days for non-white students and special education.
Circles are used in a wide variety of instances, including threats of fights; social media issues; bullying; vandalism; and to help restore relationships after suspensions. Circles can be used instead of suspension, to complement a shorter suspension, or to help reintegrate students into the school community following suspension.
Rather than look at which rule was broken and then doling out traditionally prescribed punishment, at-risk students may be sent to a circle for resolution. During a discussion led by the circle facilitator, the students come up with solutions to the issues raised. Circles help students look at what happened, determine the harm done, talk about how the harm can be repaired, and discuss how future harm can be prevented.
The facilitator draws up the restorative agreement in the students’ own words. When the students are satisfied with the content of the restorative agreement, they sign the document.
“Accepting an apology is almost as good as giving an apology,” Gilman said. “When you see that empathy, it’s really cool. I have seen the light go on. The best thing is while I’m typing up the agreement, they’re giggling, laughing and talking,” she said.
For more information on Restorative Practices, visit DRCWM’s website here.
Additional reporting from School News Network.