a different approach

As city prepares to rethink school discipline, a look at restorative justice programs in action

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Senior Judith Nkwor is a peer mediator at Validus Prep, a school that has implemented new discipline strategies that aim to minimize suspensions.

It’s a clear morning in mid-June, and Validus Preparatory Academy in the Bronx has that end-of-the-school-year feel. Students bid farewell to teachers, seniors tote freshly printed yearbooks, and most noticeably, students are allowed to disregard the school uniform without a call home or a trip to the principal’s office.

Yet even on a regular day, breaking the dress code would not lead to these consequences. In Validus terms, offenders would be “brought to Fairness” instead.

Validus, a small high school opened during the Bloomberg administration, is one of a number of city schools using restorative justice practices like student justice panels that are meant to provide useful alternatives to punitive discipline.

For the past few years, the Department of Education has been quietly building its capacity to implement restorative justice programs. Most recently, the department’s Office of Safety and Youth Development verbally committed to expanding the programs next year by providing funding that would allow schools to hire restorative justice coordinators and train staff members.

Though the number of schools involved and the dollar amount each would receive have yet to be determined, a proposal presented by the New York chapter of the Dignity in Schools Campaign last December outlines an $8.75 million investment: a pilot cohort of 10 schools, each receiving $175,000 annually for five years.

That would be a significant step in a citywide shift toward restorative justice that Chancellor Carmen Fariña promoted in May, and Mayor Bill de Blasio called for as public advocate.

A closer look at restorative justice in action reveals the challenges the city is likely to face in spreading these programs. The schools currently using restorative approaches tend to be small, young, and emphasize social-emotional learning. Educators at these schools say the programs are essential to creating a safer, more respectful environment. But for an expansion to work, other schools must commit to rethinking the “why” and “how” of school discipline.

Analyzing the programs in practice

“Restorative justice is about creating new systems where we’re building relationships,” said Anne Looser, a special education teacher at the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, which has a restorative justice program. “We’re putting supports into place so young people don’t get lost.”

These supports can take the form of student justice panels, peer mediation programs, “restorative circles,” and other methods. They all aim to change students’ offending behaviors and repair damaged relationships through resolutions like writing an apology note or helping out a teacher.

Restorative justice programs at Validus Prep High School in the Bronx include Fairness Committee and a peer mediation program.
PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Restorative justice programs at Validus Prep High School in the Bronx include Fairness Committee and a peer mediation program.

In contrast, restorative justice supporters argue, using suspensions as the universal consequence for behavior incidents further alienates at-risk students and often fails to address the root of their behavioral problems.

Suspensions from city schools decreased 27 percent between 2010 and 2013, though there were still 53,465 suspensions last year. For schools looking to reduce their reliance on punitive discipline, restorative justice programs are meant to provide teachers and students with multiple options for dealing with conflict.

At Validus, the Fairness Committee independently handles a wide range of offenses, from incidents of bullying to small disruptions like violating the cell phone policy. The most severe infractions, such as those involving drugs or weapons, are sent directly to the administration.

Fairness Committee meets once or twice a week, and all students rotate serving as panelists. A teacher facilitator leads the group in discussing the student’s actions and creating resolutions to right the wrong.

Validus also runs a peer mediation program, which art and chemistry teacher Jamie Munkatchy believes has led to changes in the school culture. “There seems to be this sort of tangential effect,” she said. “Because students know there’s a peer mediation program, they seem to just be aware of conflict resolution. They don’t glorify fighting.”

“I think it’s good for teachers too,” said senior Judith Nkwor, who is a peer mediator. “They don’t feel hopeless when they’re dealing with students; they have an option to help them stay focused and make them accountable for their actions.”

At Flushing International High School, the Lyons Community School, and the Bronx Academy of Letters, restorative justice often occurs in “restorative circles”—gatherings where participants sit in a circle to build community through conversation. The schools use circles in classroom discussions, to address discipline issues, to comfort students dealing with trauma, or to reintegrate students into the school after a suspension.

According to Flushing International social worker Tania Romero, the environment at her school “has become much more peaceful.”

This year, Romero added, circles have helped “open up conversations in more meaningful and deeper ways,” allowing students to discuss issues like racism.

At the moment, it’s difficult to judge whether these programs have reduced suspensions. Some schools, such as Lyons, said they do not keep such records, and others, including Validus, Bronx Letters, and Flushing International, would not share these numbers with Chalkbeat. But educators at these schools say that punitive measures have decreased as a result of restorative programs.

They also stress, however, that restorative justice is not intended to replace suspensions entirely.

“Do we use suspensions all the time? Yes. But we have a larger bank of tools,” explained Lyons Principal Taeko Onishi. “Our goal is to make sure in each case that we consider the restorative options before we go another route, or we use them in tandem.”

Taking restorative justice to the next level

Interestingly, many of the schools using restorative justice share certain qualities. Validus, Lyons, Letters, and Flushing International were all founded in the 2000s, maintain a student body under 600, and started restorative justice programs within the past five or so years.

Each school also has a specific focus. The Bronx Academy of Letters emphasizes writing skills, Flushing International works with students who have recently immigrated, and Validus is an Outward Bound expeditionary learning school, for example. In recent years, all have dedicated time and resources to establishing a school climate where communication and support are highly prized to accommodate restorative justice.

To some, scaling up restorative justice programs to very different schools could present challenges.

Creating a culture where educators default to restorative practices instead of suspensions takes time, Munkatchy explained. In fact, it’s still an adjustment at her own school.

“Is insubordination a suspendable offense?” she asked. “If a kid says ‘f— you,’ at the moment, seven or eight of our faculty will say it’s a suspendable offense. I feel like that is a really poor relationship between a kid and an adult.”

Art and chemistry teacher Jamie Munkatchy runs the Fairness Committee at Validus Prep.
PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Art and chemistry teacher Jamie Munkatchy runs the Fairness Committee at Validus Prep.

Getting students to buy in to the programs is another hurdle, one that Onishi said took years to overcome at Lyons. But now, if a new student doesn’t take restorative justice seriously, “I’ll get the coolest 11th grader to come tell them to buy in,” she said.

Looser, the special education teacher at Letters, formerly taught at Lehman High in the Bronx, a school of about 2,000 students that was nearly shut down by the city in 2012 and again in 2013.

Lehman ran a mentoring program that paired seniors with freshmen, and a number of teachers were trained in restorative justice practices. But “because the school was going through so much turmoil, there was constant interruption of consistency of service,” Looser said.

Yet the size of the school itself was not an issue, she said. If anything, it was easier to gather a pool of teachers for training since the staff was so large. A larger faculty would also mean less time and effort required from individual teachers to support restorative justice.

For now, the scope of the department’s commitment to expanding restorative justice to additional schools is uncertain. But the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a nonprofit focused on discipline reform, has a clear a long-term vision: a restorative justice coordinator at every school in the city.

Instead of teachers volunteering to organize different aspects of a restorative justice program, as is the case at Validus, a single staff member would organize the program holistically. This coordinator would also be responsible for tracking and analyzing statistics that could show the programs’ effectiveness.

“It is not an impossible task,” said Shoshi Chowdhury, a campaign coordinator for Dignity in Schools. “But the administration has to be on board.”

The city would not comment directly on its plans to expand restorative justice programs or provide the number of existing programs across the city. A spokeswoman said the department has been meeting with community groups and principals to discuss alternative forms of discipline. Reducing reliance on suspensions is “a top priority for Chancellor Fariña,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.

Looking at the big picture

School discipline reform is gaining momentum nationwide, with restorative justice practices taking hold in Oakland, Calif. and other school districts. In January, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder announced a set of guidelines meant for “improving school climate and discipline,” the first such guidelines released on a federal level.

Back in New York, the department is poised to significantly change the way it disciplines its students. “Under the Bloomberg administration, with the very, sort of, heavy emphasis on accountability, there was a lot of breakdown of trust necessary to make the school system function in the best way it can function,” Morningside Center Deputy Executive Director Tala Manassah said, though she noted that some Bloomberg-era officials were supportive of restorative justice.

Over the past few years, the Department of Education has sent teachers from 55 middle and high schools to receive training in restorative approaches from the Morningside Center, which will be training 45 more schools this July and plans to add another 45 in the fall.

Fariña’s administration, she believes, “has already shown itself to be extremely aligned with this kind of work.”

Still, Onishi cautioned that restorative justice is not an immediate fix-all.

“Saying, ‘The kid cursed at me yesterday, did restorative justice, and cursed at me tomorrow’ is not a fair way to measure its success,” she explained. “Our goal is not for you to suddenly be good. Our hope is that the behavior is less severe and it happens less frequently. It’s a progression.”

Later this week, Chalkbeat will publish an in-depth look at suspension policies in New York City schools. Sign up for our morning newsletter to stay in the loop.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”