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Strengthening Community Through Restorative Justice

Teacher Chelsea Sims holds up talking piece, a smiling hot dog plushieTen seventh and eighth-grade students sit in a circle on a cloudy, fall morning, all from different backgrounds and different friend groups. Each takes their turn introducing themselves, and it’s time to begin.

Every circle has a special talking piece–a smiling hot dog for today’s meeting–that indicates whose turn it is to speak. This allows for equity of voice among the group. Students take turns describing things such as foods or memories they associate with fall, their feelings as if they were a weather forecast and memories of family associated with the weather. 

The goal of this meeting is to focus on creating community and relationships with other students through practicing vulnerability and empathy. This is a restorative justice circle. 

Restorative justice is an evidence-based practice used to reduce suspensions, expulsions, and disciplinary referrals. Restorative justice focuses on building community, righting a wrong committed, and repairing harm done. 

The goal is to place value on relationships and focus on repairing relations that have been broken. 

“What you’re doing is building community so then there’s understanding… that everyone has value and worth,” said Brad Kelly, restorative justice coordinator. 

Our District uses a three-tiered approach to restorative practices within buildings. 

The tier one approach focuses on building community within the classroom or school. This can look like a morning meeting, morning check-in, morning circle, or academic learning circle. These will look similar to the students in a circle focusing on getting to know each other.

Students sit in a circle at Shimek Elementary“It was cool because at first we didn’t all really know each other, and as we kept doing circles we got to know each other and how each other was feeling,” said Halle Larew, City High student. “I feel like people in our group really listened to each other, and we felt comfortable to just talk about anything.” 

Tier two circles occur when there’s a conflict or some type of harm has been done. The victim and the wrongdoer have the opportunity to share with one another how victims were harmed, or how wrongdoers will work to resolve the harm caused.

Tier three circles are for more extreme situations and emphasize restoring the offender back to their community that was created during tier one. When re-entry into the community occurs, wrap-around supports are provided, giving the person coming back an opportunity to hear how their actions have changed the community.

One of the goals of tier three is to have a restorative conversation with the offender before they are returned to the community so that when their re-entry occurs, they can fully focus on restoring broken relationships rather than focusing on the offense that occurred. 

However, according to Kelly, restorative justice starts at tier one. 

Junior high students sit in a circle “If every school is doing a tier one type of restorative circle in some form, whether it's a welcome circle, birthday circle, or academic learning circle, if it's done with fidelity the kids won't have to have an adult suggest that the students do a circle,” said Kelly. 

Introducing circles to students and creating community, creates a more open, safe space. If a student wants to speak up about a topic, they feel comfortable talking about it in the circle or calling for a circle. 

“When I have gone into classrooms to do community building circles with other people’s classes, it seems to help them connect with each other and recognize each other’s humanity a little better,” said Chelsea Sims, Teacher Librarian. “Circles have shown me that students learn a lot more about each other by telling their own stories and by listening to other people’s stories.” 

Last year Kelly held restorative justice training for ten schools in our District. This year, the goal is to increase restorative justice programs in at least half of our schools, with the end goal of having programs in all of our schools.

This year, all secondary schools will receive help to train and offer restorative experiences for all the staff who work in our NESTT and SPACE areas. NESTT and SPACE are spots in each secondary building where students can go to focus on skill instruction centered on mindfulness,  emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and distress tolerance. Restorative justice practices add another layer of student support.

Over the next five years, the restorative justice team in our District will evaluate the restorative practices used in our schools to ensure they are being implemented properly. 

“It’s a spot where you can talk your peace, and where teachers can hear from a student’s perspective…I feel like you should do it if you want your voice to be heard,” said Larew.