A Growing Movement: Restorative Justice In K-12 Schools

May 12, 2016

Schools all over the country are considering an alternative form of disciplining students called Restorative Justice, including in New York's Capital Region.

Mike Brannigan, assistant principal of Queensbury Middle School, says the student body is changing.

“We were noticing the needs of students was really evolving with increased poverty rates, increased mental health diagnosis, our student population is really changing in terms of their needs,” says Brannigan.

With changing students, the school found traditional methods of discipline were no longer as effective. In 2012, the school began looking for alternatives to traditional methods like in-school suspension and detention, which take the student out of school or out of the classroom. Restorative Justice is a set of tools that can help students resolve issues without being asked to sit and put their heads down.

Growing more popular in schools, Restorative Justice is also being implemented into youth detention centers, adult prisons, and other spaces serving the community. It is used as both a form of discipline and a means of communication. 

Tim Dawkins is Principal of Oliver Wench Middle School in South Glens Falls,  part of a school district that began implementing RJ in January 2016. 

“I think so often in schools in the 21st Century model we have kind of talked about punishment --  how punishment has consequences -- and while in the moment that feels good or it feels appropriate, it really doesn’t serve the people who were harmed,” says Dawkins. 

Dawkins, and other advocates, believe that Restorative Justice is a model that can help solve problems that in-school suspension and other zero-tolerance policies may unintentionally create. 

The most common RJ exercise is the restorative circle: this brings together the student, a counselor, who serves as an advocate for the student, as well as teachers and administrators. 

Dawkins says Restorative Justice techniques can be used in a variety of cases. 

“It doesn’t have to be something as even big as something was stolen out of a locker. We do restorative stuff even with interpersonal conflicts with kids where one minute they are friends and the next minute they aren’t friends anymore. It may not necessarily be our job to fix our friendship but it is in our best interest to make sure that kids are emotionally healthy because that trickles over into how they are able to perform in schools,” says Dawkins.

Duke Fisher, a Restorative Justice facilitator in the Capital Region, echoes Dawkins: “We want to interrupt the behavior so that we aren’t just cycling through the same behavior until they get caught again, and we cycle through and then they get caught again.”

Fisher’s stepdaughter Alexis went through the RJ process at age 17. She says, at the time, she was in an abusive relationship, isolating herself from her friends and family. 

“While I was living at home he had really ripped my family apart. So when I moved in with him I quit talking to my parents. I cut everyone out -- friends, parents, everything,” she says.

Seeking help, she was recommended by Fisher to participate in RJ circles at home and at school.

Fisher talked to Alexis’ school counselor to create a restorative circle involving Alexis, her brothers, and her friends.

“My counselor got all of us together and we talked and I mean, it built a relationship that I didn't have before--I mean, I thought everybody around me hated me," said Alexis.

Alexis did not find the process to be easy.

 “When you do that and you sit and you look at the people you hurt I feel like that's worse than having to sit in jail to be honest...Having to sit with a bunch of people and apologize for screwing up because I am not one to say I did things wrong.” 

Alexis says she didn’t want to apologize. “But after hearing what they all said to me I had to say I was sorry because it was a mess,” she says.

Restorative Justice is used in schools to resolve conflicts in environments ranging from the classroom to a sports team. The sanctions that are created are designed to repair the harm and reintegrate the student into their community.

For example, in a case involving a teammate, instead of distancing the player from the team, RJ would find new ways to involve them. Again, Duke Fisher… 

“Maybe now we use that person as part of their restorative sanction they are going to work with younger teams. That’s an example.”