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Remembering the Profound Change that Occurred that Day

Author: Kathleen Nelson-Simley Posted: Thursday - July 16, 2020

There were ten of us in a large room sitting in a ring of comfortable chairs encircling a large table. Late afternoon sunlight caught the red hair and freckles of a 15-year-old student (we’ll call her Sarah) as she tilted her head back slightly to keep tears from escaping.

This was my first Restorative Justice (RJ) Council and everyone at the table was sharing how they were affected by Sarah’s choice to drink on the student government weekend trip. Our principal had to call Sarah’s parents, drive her back to Seattle and miss a lot of the retreat. The 11th-grade student who facilitated this council meeting shared how alcoholism had affected his own family and the pain he felt seeing Sarah drunk. Sarah’s parents shared how scared they were to get a call from the principal in the middle of the night.

Sarah had her boyfriend there as a student ally. He wanted the group to know that she was a good person, that she has been depressed lately and that everyone makes mistakes when they are young.

When it came back around to Sarah, she said, “I never realized how many people I affected. I just thought I was hurting myself. I didn’t mean to mess up the trip. I was invited by student government as a guest and I disrespected everyone there. I shouldn’t have drank.”

Sarah was asked to further reflect on what she was thinking at the time of her decision, what she was feeling, as well as how she thought and felt about the event, now that some time had passed.

Then — and this was my favorite part of RJ — we were all asked to write down as many positive qualities about Sarah as we could think of and share them with her. These would serve as a reminder to her of her importance, her strengths, her contribution to our school community, as well as help us in creating three contract items for her to complete. These RJ contracts are a way for students to repair caused harm. In addition, they often help students avoid a suspension or other forms of traditional discipline.

During our circle time, we shared qualities that we saw in her - her creativity, leadership, abilities in math and science and her strength. She was no longer able to hold back her tears.

“I just thought you were all going to yell at me. Hearing how much you all see in me, I just feel like ... I really let all of you down,” she said softly.

Sarah was presented with a way to repair some of the relationships that she had hurt. She and the rest of us brainstormed things she could do to eliminate the root causes of her harmful choices, heal relationships with fellow students and improve her chances of graduating on time...

The story about Sarah doesn’t end here. The story’s author, David Levine, who has been an educator in public high schools in Brooklyn and Seattle, as well as a restorative justice facilitator in the Bronx, has more of Sarah's story to tell you.

But first, let’s talk more about what restorative justice is.

Restorative justice is about building community and strengthening relationships. It is based on the premise that when we feel part of a supportive community we respect others in that community and become accountable to it. Using a restorative approach means you care more about creating a community built upon kindness, mutual respect and compassion, rather than on consequences or punishment.

There is an increasing amount of literature speaking to the importance of using restorative justice approaches with students during this time of living with COVID-19. Because of how long this pandemic is likely to last, kids will experience negative effects from it. One way kids who are negatively impacted will self-identify themselves to you is through an array of “acting out” or negative behaviors. It is then that a restorative approach will be most needed by you.

In April I hosted the webinar, “Bringing Restorative Practices to Your Students”. The webinar’s expert presenter, Bill Michener, introduced several hundred webinar attendees to the basics of restorative practices, along with the fundamental process and benefits of using them with students. The webinar was well received! Since then I have heard from many attendees asking what they need to do to begin using restorative practices with their students.

I need to be honest. Making the transition to restorative approaches isn’t easy or quick. It takes time, skill and the commitment of all staff to embrace the approach. It requires a thoughtful, staged transition.

To help you thoughtfully think through this transition, I have invited Bill Michener to return for another FREE webinar next Thursday, July 23, from Noon-1:15 pm EST.

In this Part 2 webinar, Bill will focus on how to effectively integrate restorative practices in your school, community organization or agency. He will also share stories and examples of how you can use restorative approaches virtually with students if meeting in-person isn’t an option. Mark your calendar and reserve the time! Registration for this free webinar will open on Monday, July 20, with limited seating available. Look for the registration information in your Inbox on Monday.

Many who use restorative practices are struck by the power and influence they can have on everyone involved. David and Sarah would be the first to admit this.

When David asked Sarah to reflect on her experience with restorative justice, she wrote, “My experience was one of the most effective disciplinary approaches that I have ever been confronted with. It made me understand how my actions affected people not only directly, but how my actions set off a series of events. Seeing this reality and being given a second chance made me so thankful.”

“Ever since these events I have excelled in high school and have felt closer to my community and to the people I affected. To this day, when harm happens to me or my community I try to look at all sides of the story, express my emotions, listen to other people’s viewpoints and look for a positive outcome.”

David shares, “Restorative justice is messy, tough and personal. It is beautiful, rewarding and just. I have been part of this journey with many students since working with Sarah, yet I will always remember the profound change that occurred that day sitting in a circle as Sarah’s community, the afternoon sunlight cutting across the room, turning golden at dusk.”