Friday, July 3, 2015

Can Restorative Justice Be the Key to School Discipline Reform?

In January, I facilitated a 90-minute post-suspension circle to repair the harm following a fight involving three Bronx Lab students. Community-building sometimes involves restoring relationships through conflict resolution. Participants in this circle included six staff members, three students, and four parents, and it delivered as promised. By the end, one parent expressed that she felt like she'd "been to church," and the parents told all three students that any of the kids could reach out to any of them for support.... by Sarah Marcy, principal of South Bronx Lab School May 18, 2015, Gotham Gazette
This is written by a principal, so I am always wary. And I imagine the
school is a small high school. I want to see how this would work in a large high school. But through my long-term connections to Teachers Unite I am a supporter of the concept of restorative justice. 

At the recent ICE meeting the subject of restorative justice came up. Yes discipline in schools is often chaotic and the only choice seems suspension - but those kids don't change and they come back. Some admins just blame the teacher - well, maybe most admins. There is little support for teachers and often defense of students. Some use phony restorative justice to make it look like they are trying something but in reality don't put any real resources into it.

Teachers Unite helps set up real and functioning RJ systems where the issues that create friction between teachers and students are worked out in some orderly fashion.

Mike Schirtzer who was at the meeting gave a passionate defense of RJ - he is even leading a Teachers Unite workshop in a few weeks. He cited stats in schools that had high suspension rates and saw them drop drastically. He also pointed out that there is punishment for transgressions - some of it meted out by decisions of peers.

I know that in my own classrooms I was pretty good at discipline and one of the reasons was that I held no grudges - a kid did something, was punished and we start over. I also used peer pressure and even trials with witnesses. I like the idea of a circle better than a trial and would be an advocate of RJ today.

I was being fairly reasonable - I never had a child suspended or asked to have one suspended. I tried not to call admin for help as I thought it showed me to be weak - as an activist I was engaged in a struggle with admin so why give them something to hold over me? I think most of my kids would say I was fair -- in fact I can think of maybe 4 or 5 that I felt I lost - and probably due as much to my actions -- though some of them seemed to be sociopathic and no matter what you do it won't help.

I get that things have changed. But when I heard someone at the ICE meeting who I won't mercifully name, go after RJ because it "coddles" kids I was disgusted - and not the first time at this individual who has used his travails as a teacher over the past decade to engage in bombast verbal attacks on students - despite that some people say he was once a good teacher. How many times did I hear people come into the teacher room and say "they're animals?" I get the frustration but to me that attitude is revealing. What I miss about teaching is the kids and that will never change for me.
Restorative Justice is Key to School Discipline Reform

Since the founding of Bronx Lab School in 2004, "student discipline" has been an ongoing topic of discussion. Students, staff, and parents are continually debating the merits and efficacy of suspensions, detentions, and mediations in addressing the realities of student conflict and non-adherence to school policies and values. What we know for sure after more than a decade of these conversations is that there are no simple answers. What we have learned is, though, is that Restorative Justice supports our community's mission and values, and offers a humanizing approach to the ever-present "discipline" question.

Bronx Lab School first started exploring and investing in restorative justice practices a little more than a year ago; it's been an exhilarating but bumpy ride.
When an individual school – and for that matter, the educational system and society in which it resides – has a history of responding to harmful student behaviors using traditional, punitive methods, it's a tremendous philosophical shift to consider the alternative of a restorative approach. Students and teachers alike have been tacitly trained in many instances to criminalize student behavior: teachers want to file police reports for aggressive insubordination and students often consider police involvement an inevitability. I'll never forget when one of my students said to me last year after his involvement in a fight: "Miss, I'm a young man growing up in the Bronx, of course I knew one day I would end up in handcuffs. I just didn't know it would be today."
Inspired by our school community's commitment to justice in light of these realities, Bronx Lab embraced the possibility of another path.
A dozen staff members participated in week-long restorative justice trainings provided by the Department of Education; advisors started leading community-building circles on a weekly basis with their advisory classes; we formed a "visionary team" to work with Teachers Unite and Morningside Center; and our student affairs team began implementing tier two restorative mediations in response to student conflicts. These were just first steps in what will undoubtedly be a many-year, ongoing journey. Already we have committed dozens of hours of unbudgeted preparation and professional development, not to mention countless hours of research, reflection, and recruitment.
During our first year foray into restorative justice, we've had some beautiful moments of success, but the lingering question of sustainability is ever-present. At last June's staff retreat, one of our own teachers led a powerful circle on belonging - together, a group of 30 colleagues recounted personal stories and bonded over shared values. We cried and we laughed, and we understood through lived experience the power of circle in building community. We were transformed; we were hooked.
In January, I facilitated a 90-minute post-suspension circle to repair the harm following a fight involving three Bronx Lab students. Community-building sometimes involves restoring relationships through conflict resolution. Participants in this circle included six staff members, three students, and four parents, and it delivered as promised. By the end, one parent expressed that she felt like she'd "been to church," and the parents told all three students that any of the kids could reach out to any of them for support.
Students need consistency to feel safe and staff need it to be able to respond with a unified voice, but we simply do not have the infrastructure or capacity at this point to respond to conflict in a restorative manner every time. We don't have the systems in place to use restorative justice in every case, so we implement inconsistently. Teachers and advisors want to know, 'what do I do when students don't want to participate in our community building circle? How do I handle rude, aggressive, or threatening behavior from students without either ignoring the problem or kicking them out of school?'
The city Department of Education's recently-revised school discipline code supports the work we're doing - a restorative conference is now officially an acceptable response to almost every student infraction. But, building alternative accountability takes a lot of time and requires supports that schools don't necessarily have at this point.
Schools need funding for a full time restorative coordinator with the sole focus of coordinating a consistent, positive, restorative climate and approach to discipline at the school. We need the resources to train students, educators, and parent leaders in planning and implementing restorative practices in schools.
Restorative justice is a humanizing answer to much of what ails our schools, but it is a messy, slow, and difficult undertaking of reflecting on and undoing ineffective methods, while simultaneously learning, experimenting, and constructing new, effective ones. At Bronx Lab we are committed to restorative justice, but we need a little more help from the DOE in making our vision a reality.
Sarah Marcy is the principal at Bronx Lab School.

TU Summer Peer Exchanges

Wednesdays this Summer
4:30 to 6:30 PM 
at the LGBT Center 
208 W 13 St. in Manhattan
(A/C/E/L/F/M/1 to 14th St.)

Join Teachers Unite members in sharing skills and strategies 
for growing restorative + transformative justice and building inclusive, democratic NYC schools

Exchange #1: Wednesday, July 8th
Scaling Up Restorative Justice in Schools
Facilitated by staff + students from the Lyons Community School in Brooklyn

Exchange #2: Wednesday, July 15th 
Building Capacity for Restorative Justice with All Members of the School Community
***An intro workshop for restorative justice practices particularly for school stakeholders not always included in the conversation (and DOE trainings) on restorative practices: parents, secretaries, students, paraprofessionals, parent coordinators—all are encouraged to attend!***
Facilitated by Tyler Brewster, James Baldwin School


Wednesday, July 22nd
Racism and Segregation: Restorative Justice in Context
RSVP link + more info coming soon!

Wednesday, July 29th
 Youth Organizing + Storytelling for Social Justice in the Classroom
RSVP link + more info coming soon!

Wednesday, August 5th
Subverting Charter School Discipline Codes
RSVP link + more info coming soon!

Wednesday, August 12th
Tier 2: Restorative Responses + the Youth Court Model 
RSVP link + more info coming soon!

Wednesday, August 19th
Restorative Justice Deaning 
RSVP link + more info coming soon!


  1. I watched and participated in a restorative justice meeting where we were in a circle with the student and her guardian and it seemed to work initially. However, in two weeks it got around the school that the student, who had pushed the teacher, was not suspended and many teachers reported that the students believed that there was no consequences for bad behavior.

    By the time I left the school, discipline was spiraling downward and a couple of months later an ATR friend who was assigned to the school told me that the teachers believe the "restorative justice" program was a joke and led to more student discipline issues not less as students feared little consequence for their actions.

    1. I imagine this will happen in schools with semi-competent admins. It needs constant follow-up and support - and if TU is involved I think that helps - if it is a DOE program solely or the principal brings someone in as a show it will not work. The fact is that it works in some places -- and people shouldn't trash it because it doesn't work in their school. Very harsh discipline works in charter schools because they can and do toss people. And parents are so desperate to get out of public schools they will put up with anything.

  2. When discipline is lacking the only ones who lose are the kids who want to learn. The consequences in NYC are a joke. Thats NYC not just NYC schools. I think people are given way to many chances and too many don't do it again. There needs to be consequences for actions, and that includes failing tests and not doing homework. In this free country that we live in it seems these students are not free to fail or free to have to deal with the consequences for their actions. There will always be a "please try harder" please come and make up your work" Im going to give the test over " ENOUGH ALREADY!
    Sometimes we all need to learn the hard way and that seems to be a forgotten cliche.

  3. My school embarked on the Restorative Justice pathway last year. I attended several training sessions and I devoured two short books. As a teacher of Social and Emotional Learning, I sat in endless circles. I was amazed by how the toughest kids would open up and share their experiences in a circle. They told of neighborhood shootings and domestic violence incidents. I was a party to one administrative Restorative Justice session with two kids who had been fighting in my class and three parents. I was moved to tears by the cooperative spirit exhibited by the parents. The downside of Restorative Justice as implemented in my school was a lack of consistency in handling disciplinary issues. It was concerning how little attention was paid to the emotional experiences of less favored teachers.

    Abigail Shure

  4. I've found that the only thing that consistently works is 911 - especially when anyone is assaulted. Currently you have staff members being assaulted and robbed. They are afraid to call 911 because they have been warned.

  5. This is a joke. My decent school has fallen apart because of this garbage. There are no more consequence so normally good students are now doing not so good things. What happened to, “if you do the crime, you do the time."

  6. What is clear from these comments is that RJ works wonders if the school admin doesn't screw it up. There should be consequences for transgressions - the issue is what they are and how they are meted out. As we know from charters rigid discipline codes lead to abuse. I hope we don't want to be in charter land. The reason I think charters have to be so harsh in discipline is that their teacher turnover rate doesn't provide them with enough experienced teachers to handle the discipline. There is a big difference between an assault and other types of altercations. If someone is violent on a regular basis RJ will not help - those students need therapy or a special program. Addressing discipline is complex and I wouldn't got for simplistic solutions like let's call the national guard or buy the kids off with candy. From what I hear RJ has potential to find middle ground. If your admin brings it in and then screws the pooch they are just doing PR because they think Carmen might love them for it. Instead of attacking the concept of RJ - expose the admins.

  7. I read what Abigail wrote so let me expand upon my experience with RJ.

    In the RJ session, the girl cried her eyes out at the circle and told us about how her mother threw her out because she couldn't get along with her mother's newest boyfriend. By the time the session was over, the girl claimed she will act better and tell somebody when she experiences an issue in her life. However, a week or so later the girl was heard bragging how she escaped punishment and eventually lapsed into her old ways by the time I rotated out of the school.

    1. Chaz, I hear what you are saying. But, how often do we hear students say the same things about suspension? How often do students get suspended, only to come back again with the same behaviors? In a restorative model, the idea is that we have not pushed that student out of the school. We are building a relationship with that student, and then, much like a good teacher re-teaches a missed academic skill, we can go back and re-teach that social/emotional skill. All too often, students who get suspended fall behind, act out even more, and eventually, they leave without ever learning the skill they needed. Restorative justice gives us the room to TEACH a new skill. It will take time.

  8. You are very wrong. RJ is just another way for students to not be responsible for their actions. I’m not saying you have to be harsh, but students in my school know that they are free to do what they want. Kids are defacing property and nothing is happening to them. Kids are cutting class or not even coming to school, and nothing is happening to them. Kids are openly doing drugs and have been caught and nothing happened to them. (Did I mention sexual assault? Guess what???) That’s just a few things. Yes, admins are doing nothing, but neither are the parents. Teachers are now being attacked (not physically) when they set consequences. Oh, teachers were told the students’ bad behaviors are our fault. RJ needs to go away and detention, suspension and maybe jail for some severe cases are in order, not a pat on the head.

  9. Wonderful, Norm, and I'm serious.

    How does training and PD for RF fit into a real school with dozens of needs and obligations and Chancellor's Regs and all sorts of stuff fit in? How do you get teachers, parents, students, administrators and guidance counselors with dozens of things to do also add this to the list so that it gets down correctly and with fidelity.

    I support it but, please, tell me how this all gets done in a real school. Glad you and Mike are on it but there can't be more than a few hundred teachers in the entire system trained in any of this. What do you do?

    1. Harris - to me based on these comments and stuff I hear from TU people -- if the admin is not all in don't bother with RJ. It seems this is happening in some places. Does that mean it can be replicated in a school out of control? No way if there are not enough resources to run these meetings - if it's done on the fly as in so many places it causes this kind of reaction.
      RJ cannot change personalities or stop all problems. If it mellows out some kids and smooths the relationships with some teachers it is a win. Someone has to show we the alternative will work - I don't think it has. I was in a school under control. Kids still did their crap -- I think RJ woild have been great = but never with my admin

    2. Harris, The author of the original article -- Sarah Marcey -- is making the same point you are. If schools are going to implement restorative justice, then we need more resources and more time to make it happen. Restorative justice is being introduced into schools because of parent and student advocacy. In essence, what parents and students are saying is that they do not want to be pushed out of schools by suspension, and they want other structures in place -- like restorative models. But as teachers we know this is not easy, and it cannot be done without the correct staffing. Ideally, the DOE will shift some of the resources it spends on police to spending more money on restorative justice coordinators, counselors, and even reducing class size to make real restorative work possible. As teachers, I hope we ally ourselves with the communities requesting restorative models. Just like every other initiative in schools, until we have the right supports in place, there will be problems, but for me keeping students in classrooms and out of the school to prison pipeline is fundamental to keeping public education alive.

      Also, Norm, actually in TU we see teachers, parents, and students as the most fundamental to implementing restorative models. If we are contacted by admin about setting up restorative work, then we ask where the teachers, parents, and students are. In many cases, we work with groups of teachers, students, and parents, and then admin is sort of convinced because there is a critical mass of the community talking about doing things in the school a bit differently.


Comments are welcome. Irrelevant and abusive comments will be deleted, as will all commercial links. Comment moderation is on, so if your comment does not appear it is because I have not been at my computer (I do not do cell phone moderating). Or because your comment is irrelevant or idiotic.