by Emily Bodfish
You know these kinds of stories
My high school had a rule that if any student was tardy 3 or more times, they would receive detention. I was always a rule follower and avoided trouble at all costs, but sometimes I was 5-10 minutes late because of my carpool. I remember actually feeling angry about the rule, it’s such an extreme consequence for teenagers who had trouble getting to school by 7 am each day. Here’s how I solved my problem: on any day I was going to be late, I would just skip school entirely to avoid detention. The result was that instead of missing 5 -10 minutes of homeroom, I would miss a full day of instruction. I never got detention, but I also missed enough days of school that my grades suffered. Nothing about that experience was restorative. I didn’t grow as a person, and the only thing I learned was that high school was another “us vs. them” kind of place.
We’ve all had some sort of experience of “discipline” at a traditional school. Sometimes it feels like school officials get so focused on enforcing a rule for the sake of enforcing. Other times it feels as if adults in schools are just waiting for students to mess up and do the wrong thing - that they assume that students are trying to be bad.
How can these sorts of traditional/punitive practices be good for students? How can we make schools a place where students want to be? How many of you have met a child that tells you that they don’t like school? This is far too common. I believe that a student’s dislike of school has more to do with how safe and comfortable they feel there than anything else. Traditional discipline techniques only serve to deepen the divide between the powerful adults in the school and the students. There has to be a better way where everyone gets to grow.
A Better Way
Restorative Practices/Restorative Justice is a philosophy in which all of us at CYC’s Futures Academy have the mindset that our community holds the highest value. Within our community, each individual is doing the best they possibly can with what they have in any given moment. Even so, at times harm can be done. During these times, we need to address it in a fair and just way where all parties feel heard and understood so that the community can move forward, stronger than before.
Futures Academy began to officially integrate Restorative Practices (RP) about three years ago, and I believe it’s one of the biggest reasons why our students are happy here. Most of our students have experienced some time in a traditional school and for many reasons, they have been unsuccessful. They come to us because their education is important to them. At some point in their past (sometimes at many points), the traditional system has failed them, and this means that when they join us, they are often already distrustful of schools, academics, and the adults in these settings. We have to get to work right away building relationships.
It absolutely begins with building community and a sense of belonging. We start with the one-on-one relationships we have with students. We get to know them and allow them to know us. There are several things that we do, specifically, to try to help build this community. First, we have connection circles, regularly. We bring groups of students together, sit in a circle, and invite everyone to respond to prompts. Sometimes the prompts are light and silly, “Would you rather listen to your favorite song 24/7 or listen to a variety of songs that someone else chooses for you 24/7?” We invite students to share about who they are and the experiences that have shaped them. Sometimes our circle prompts are much more serious, “How were you impacted by the school closings on April 17, 2019?”
Secondly, we think about the language we use with our students. We want to convey that we are equals in our relationships and have a “power with” approach, while many schools and other organizations have a “power over” approach. The thoughts, feelings, wishes, experiences of our students are equal to those of staff members. We share these and we really listen, which builds trust. We use affective statements and questions, talking about impact and empathy. We don’t make demands but instead invite. Instead of barking out something like, “You can’t be late to class! If you come late again, just don’t bother showing up,” it might sound something a little more like, “Hi! I’m so glad you were able to make it to class today, I’m happy to see you. I wanted to share with you that when you come in late and are loud like you were today, it distracts me from what I’m doing with the rest of the class. I’m wondering if you would be willing to come in a little more quietly next time? Also, if you can make it for the beginning of class, it might feel like it’s a little easier to understand what we are working on.” Guess what happens when we say it to students the first way? They stop coming to class. But, when I say it the second way, 90% of the time that student is on time for the next class AND more engaged in the work than they have ever been.
Finally, we must acknowledge that at times there are instances of harm that can be more serious than a student coming late to class, or talking too loudly in the hallway. At these times, we work with students to bring them together to participate in a formal restorative conference. These cases are more delicate and take a little more time and preparation, but the end result can be one of the most beautiful experiences. I’ll share with you the story of my first ever restorative conference at Futures Academy.
Student A made a racist joke in front of student B who instantly stormed out of the room in tears. She also refused to ever go back to that class. I sat with student B and told her about the restorative process, and I asked her if she would be willing to share with him why what he had said had been so triggering. I promised to be there to guide the conversation. She agreed. I went back to student A and explained that student B had been triggered and offered him an opportunity to share what had happened from his perspective and listen to her explain about why she was so upset. He was reluctant, but also agreed. We sat in a room together around a table. I asked them each a series of questions: “What happened, from your perspective?” “How were you impacted by what happened?” “What do you need to move forward from this?” And guess what? They both talked. They both shared. In fact, once I got them going, they didn’t really even need me anymore. They talked about their families of origin. They talked about racism. They talked about their personal fears and struggles, and they realized that they really did understand each other. Student A apologized to student B, not because someone told him to but because he felt regret. Student B felt heard, validated, and forgave student A, not because she was supposed to but because she wanted to. Now pause for a moment. Can you just imagine how this would have gone without Restorative Practice? Student A might have been reprimanded for making racist comments, perhaps detention or in school suspension. He might have learned that next time he has a joke like that for me, he should say it more quietly. Student B might have walked around the school remembering how much she hated student A for the rest of her time at school.
Does it really work?
At Colorado Youth for a Change and Futures Academy, we know that Restorative Practices are a game changer, and that once students believe that we trust them, they begin to trust us, and ultimately themselves.
Restorative Practices ultimately help CYC in its mission to solve the dropout crisis. When students who think they hate school discover that they like it, they stay in school, they earn a diploma or GED, they try more college classes and they go on to earn degrees. When students don’t have another option, they can ultimately give up, and without a place like Futures Academy, it can be the end of the road for their education. Restorative Practices also teach all of us how to process and work through our conflicts. Don’t we all want people in our lives who are willing to take accountability for and make steps to repair the harm they’ve caused? Don’t you wish that everyone you worked with knew how to effectively and respectfully work through conflict? Restorative Practices not only help keep students in school but also help to create the kind of people we want to work with, work for, and surround ourselves with every day.