When Restorative Justice in Schools Works

PITTSFIELD, N.H.—When the freshman Hope Parent left her cellphone unattended at Pittsfield Middle High School, last year, her classmate Brandon Bojarsky saw his chance for a little fun.

Grabbing the device off a windowsill in their Spanish class, he quickly shot off a few obnoxious text messages to people in her contact list—including one to Hope’s mother.

By the time Hope figured out what Brandon had done, her phone battery had died. She couldn’t immediately follow up with people to tell them the unkind words hadn’t originated with her.

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But even worse, her mother—who lives out of state—was deeply upset. Brandon had texted “I hate you” to her, particularly hurtful language at the time.

“The relationship with my mother wasn’t that great so [the message] seemed believable,” Hope said.

At home after school, Hope had to convince her father she had nothing to do with the prank message to her mother. In the following days, having to encounter an apparently unremorseful Brandon at school made it impossible to forget the incident had happened, Hope said. She took her complaint to a teacher who had a suggestion: What if the school’s new justice committee heard the case?

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In traditional school-discipline programs, students face an escalating scale of punishments for infractions that can ultimately lead to expulsion. But there is now strong research that shows pulling students out of class as punishment can hurt their long-term academic prospects. What’s more, data shows that punishments are often unequal. Nationally, more black students are suspended than white students, for example.

As a result, alternative programs like restorative justice are gaining popularity in public schools from Maine to Oregon. Early adopters of the practice report dramatic declines in school-discipline problems, as well as improved climates on campuses and even gains in student achievement.

In 2009, Pittsfield was rated one of New Hampshire’s weakest campuses. A massive influx of federal aid and private grants  (including the New England-based Nellie Mae Education Foundation) has since been poured into the rural school, located in a former mill town in the state’s Suncook Valley.

For the past year, The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, has been following Pittsfield’s transformation into a “student-centered learning” environment. The 260 students at Pittsfield are given more choices of how and when they learn, and they are encouraged to pursue their interests through project-based learning and internships.

The student-centered learning approach now also extends to campus discipline. Lower-level offenses can be redirected to the justice committee, which is made up of student mediators, with school administrators and teachers serving as advisors. The goal is to provide a nonconfrontational forum for students to talk through their problems, address their underlying reasons for their own behaviors, and make amends both to individuals who have been affected as well as to the larger school community.

, it’s been a bumpy two years since suspensions for classroom misbehavior were banned in favor of a restorative justice model.

The policy analyst Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners in Washington, D.C., said that while he’s seen strong school-based restorative-justice programs in action, he has concerns about the sudden popularity of—and political pressure for—alternative programs.

“We have a proven track record in the American education system of taking things that are working, replicating them quickly and badly and consequently discrediting the otherwise good idea,” said Rotherham, who was a policy advisor to the Clinton White House. “Restorative justice has become a hot issue and everyone wants to do it—but it may not be what every school needs.”

Kathy Evans, an assistant professor at Eastern Mennonite University, which offers a graduate certification program in restorative justice for educators, shares Rotherham’s concerns. Restorative justice can’t exist in a vacuum, Evans said. Schools also have to address the campus-climate issues that contribute to student behavior.

Quantifying the number of schools using restorative justice is difficult. In addition to the large-scale district programs that have been well-documented, many teachers are opting to use the model in their individual classrooms. That’s one of the reasons why a group of restorative-justice advocates and educators met last summer to begin outlining plans for a national association, according to Evans. The goal is to support grassroots efforts and to ensure that there’s both consistency and accountability for restorative-justice programs in schools.

Evans said she observed a restorative-justice circle at a school recently in which the students were still looking to the teacher for permission to speak. That’s a red flag, she said.

“Educators do this quick-and-dirty one-day training and they think they’re qualified to do restorative-justice work—they’re doing the best they can with what they do know,” she said. “But the circles are supposed to equalize the power and give students the right to speak. That didn’t happen.”

To be sure, it takes time to build trust among students and adults for alternative discipline programs to bear fruit. A school like Pittsfield where student-centered learning is the norm has a head start, said Evans, but restorative justice can—and does—work in many different kinds of campus settings.

“We often assume adolescents aren’t capable of these kinds of thoughtful interactions, but they just need to be given the opportunity to develop that capacity,” Evans said. “We need to stop underestimating students and trying to motivate and regulate them with carrots and sticks.”

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After hearing from both Hope and Brandon, Pittsfield’s student mediators asked Hope what she needed to resolve the situation from her perspective, and she said she wanted Brandon to apologize. The peer mediators suggested he write letters to the people who had received the prank texts.

That would work for her mother who lives out of state, Hope told the committee. But her father would want something more.

The student mediators agreed that a face-to-face apology was in order. Brandon admitted that he was nervous to face Hope’s dad, but when the time came, “he was actually really nice about it. He accepted my apology and we had a good talk.”

Additionally, the mediators decided Brandon should talk to students in younger grades about what he had done and use the experience as a life lesson.

As he completed each of the obligations, Brandon found it easier to meet Hope’s gaze when he saw her at school. He also said he realized something else—he didn’t want to be in trouble anymore. (In fact, that incident was his last serious infraction, said the committee advisor, Jenny Wellington.)

Hope was impressed with how seriously Brandon took his duties—and her dad was, as well.  “A lot of kids would have just taken the suspension and not owned up to what they did,” she said.

Taking part in the restorative-justice process has also left them on better terms. Now both in 10th-grade, they say “hi” when passing in the hallway between classes, and Hope said she’s no longer angry. Those feelings probably would still be lingering if Brandon had only been given a more traditional punishment like detention, Hope said.

Brandon agreed.

“When you’re mad at another person and you’re walking down the hallway, you don’t even want to look at them,” Brandon said. “So when you talk it out in JC, it’s like the good relationship you had with the other person is restored.”

This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.