Restorative Justice in the Education System
Restorative justice is a philosophy that promotes the interconnectedness of community, making individuals who have committed harm accountable for their actions, and demanding that they face the community they have harmed in order to jointly come up with a way to restore good relations.
Illustration by Shelby Hohl
Written by Anita Wadhwa
I teach in a small, nontraditional high school program which serves students from all across the Spring Branch Independent School District. Here, we teach students I lovingly call “misfits” — literally, students who did not fit in at their home campuses — or, as someone once put it, students whose home campuses were a poor fit for them. This happens for a variety of reasons; some have anxiety issues, want to graduate more quickly, or prefer the small classes we offer. Some have dropped out, have a child, or have struggled academically for years.
In addition, too many of our approximately 150 students have been pushed out of their schools. After a pattern of suspensions over the years, many were expelled and sent to the disciplinary alternative education programs in their district. Some are thousands in debt from truancy tickets. Several have had contact with the criminal justice system. Once they returned to their home campuses, several were explicitly told that they were not allowed to return, even though this is illegal. Other times, it was suggested in not so subtle ways that they should consider another school – namely my school, the Academy of Choice, where, as one teacher from another campus told me, “we send our losers.” A 19-year-old student says at his prior school he was forcibly removed by a police officer because he refused to wear a zip tie to keep his pants up. He was told by the principal that he was over age and could go to another campus.
Enter restorative justice. As a doctoral student in Boston, I researched two high schools whose students faced similar issues, but were building community and addressing harms and conflicts through restorative means. Put simply, restorative justice is a philosophy that promotes the interconnectedness of community, making individuals who have committed harm accountable for their actions, and demanding that they face the community they have harmed in order to jointly come up with a way to restore good relations. It is, as sociologist Carolyn Boyes-Watson puts it, a way for us to “live in a good way” with one another.
At the Academy of Choice we engage in the circle process, where students sit in a circle and pass a talking piece. They have to agree to norms of the piece by having, as my mentor Janet Connors says, “the honor of listening when you don’t have it, and the honor of speaking when you do.” We use circles to first build community, then provide support for students facing particular difficulties, whether they are grieving the loss of a loved one or are failing all classes and need motivation. We use healing circles to bring together those involved in a conflict and come to a resolution. Finally, we use reentry circles for students who are new to our school, or schooling in general; those who have come from another country, dropped out, or are returning from maternity leave, the disciplinary alternative education program, home school, or rehab. Society tells these kids they are failures to be teen fathers and mothers; to have smoked marijuana at school and got caught; for having dropped out because they had to work. Our reentry circles convene student facilitators, myself, and teachers of the student to say: we value you no matter what.
The circle practice originates in Native American cultures. I acknowledge that this is an entirely too broad way to describe a continent of multi-layered peoples, yet it is vital to honor the indigenous roots of the philosophy. Howard Zehr, who wrote what is considered the seminal text on restorative justice, Changing Lenses, is often described as the “grandfather of restorative justice.” However, as Robert Yazzie, Chief Justice Emeritus of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court once said at a conference I attended, “Howard Zehr’s not my grandfather.” The same power dynamics that bolster white supremacy in the United States — and here I mean institutional white privilege — can play out in restorative practices, a fact I am keenly aware of as I train students to facilitate our circles. As a result, our kids study institutional barriers and the ‘-isms’ that impact all of us, and particularly their communities, which are predominately North of I-10, in the “rougher” part of Spring Branch (read: not the Memorial side). Their knowledge that black students are often excluded from school at a rate 2-3 times of their white counterparts has empowered them to go out in the world and become agents of change.
Why is restorative justice necessary in an “urban” school like mine, one whose population is largely of color and lives in poverty? Because the harms that need to be healed are not just the harms that occur when a student curses out a teacher, or when a teacher mocks a student, or when two students fight over a boyfriend – the harm that needs to be most repaired is that inflicted by the education system. This system is composed of curricula that is purported to be objective yet largely ignores the contributions of nonwhite cultures; that perpetuates a retributive model of discipline based on the outdated and false notion that excluding students from the learning environment will help rehabilitate their behavior; that supports a multimillion dollar industry of test creating companies like Pearson, who create assessments that prove what we already know — “bad” schools are bad schools, and good schools are good schools; and that does not create enough structures in place to address traumas faced by students who have experienced violence in their neighborhoods on a regular basis, even though brain based research has solid evidence about the negative impact of trauma on student behavior and achievement.
The gains our students have made are astounding. Students who have literally never said “I’m sorry” have learned to repair relationships with teachers and students when misunderstandings occur. Others have gained confidence as they learn that by helping others in circle, they are helping themselves. They have approached students who seem isolated and offered their friendship or a circle of support. When they get hyped up and want to fight because someone “mean mugged” them, most of the time they approach me later and say they want a circle. But sometimes the progress takes months to appear — or even years. Imagine if we equipped our students and teachers with such tools at the elementary ages, as practitioners such as Rosario Martinez are at Patterson Elementary in HISD. Many of the disciplinary issues that wreak havoc in classrooms would be addressed at the root, and teachers, students and families would be better for it.
Despite the success at our school, I have concerns about the nationwide buzz around restorative justice and the varied objectives of its practitioners. A colleague once told me that I am teaching kids that the “white man” has brought them down. She believes restorative justice is a tool to heal conflicts and build community, but not, as I believe, to end oppression. For me, you cannot separate what sociologist Debby Saintil Previna calls “the ecology of oppression” from day to day experiences. Therein lies the difference in philosophies among people doing restorative justice. Even though my colleague and I both care deeply about our students, we see the racial divides between us and our students differently. She was alienated when one student said he could not relate to her because she is White. I told her, what of it? I’m South Asian, not Latino like many of our students, and we as educators have to acknowledge these difference and be okay with it. I can’t be offended if a black student says she can’t relate to me because of my race. I must say, “Okay, I get it. Can I find you a mentor who you can relate to?” And yet many of my students and I connect in ways that transcend class, age, race, ad sexual orientation.
In fact, in my work in restorative justice, I have found it is the adults who are most intransigent about being accountable to their community and being honest with themselves. We are more comfortable noting the deficits of students in our daily frustrations than in doing the hard work of reaching out to parents, calling on community partners, and addressing conflicts that arise in the workplace with one another. Moreover, restorative justice is being commodified and sold as a sexy package to districts yearning to find a way to curb the excessive suspension rates, particular of students of color. Yet restorative justice is free: you don’t need an expensive consultant to tell you how to talk to children as if they were your own - not, as educationalist Lisa Delpit puts it, “other people’s children.” Ask the parents of your students how they want to be spoken to. They have a lot to say.
My advice is this: talk to students, and listen. It’s somehow become revolutionary to do those things. Rather than being authoritative, we have been trained to be authoritarian with our students. The tide is turning, and there are many like-minded educators rejecting the status quo of our school system. If my daughters were in elementary school during STAAR testing time, I would opt out like so many parents in HISD are. My biggest concern as a high school student in the academically competitive Sugar Land high school I attended was that I wasn’t seen, despite my obvious depression and withdrawn behavior. That is what I can relate to with my students, and it is my mission to see every student. It is why I formed the Restorative Justice Collaborative of Houston, and why we convene annually, as we will this year at our third conference, “Restorative Justice 360: Strengthening our Communities.” Social workers, youth, police officers, criminal justice practitioners, teachers, principals, counselors, and other community members all attend so we can fight the scourge of punitive policies that fuel the school to prison pipeline.
I invite you to attend, to call on our organization for our free resources, and to talk to young people in a circle setting, where their best selves are always on display. Two former restorative justice facilitators at my school shared their stories; they were from opposing gangs and hated one another. After hearing one another’s narratives, one told the other, “Let’s start a movement.” Restorative justice is about the power of story, and it is the stories of the youth I learn from every day that motivate me to continue the movement.
Dr. Anita Wadhwa is an educator in Spring Branch ISD, author of the book “Restorative Justice in Urban Schools: Disrupting the School to Prison Pipeline,” founder of the Restorative Justice Collaborative of Houston, and a mother of two lovely girls.
by Guest Author