I’ll admit it. I first wrote off the concept of restorative justice as another passing fad that would distract schools, specifically urban schools, from prioritizing academic achievement.
But last summer, my principal invited me and several colleagues to a five-day seminar to delve into restorative circles and other strategies for dealing with disruptive behavior while fostering an atmosphere of community and trust — without removing students from school. After some self-reflection and spending months putting the strategies into practice, I have become a believer in the promise of this approach.
I am a proud urban educator of young adults who are bright, compassionate, creative, and full of potential. Many of them have experienced some level of trauma that I and many of my colleagues are guilty of overlooking at times. That trauma often serves as a roadblock to their success, impacting their behavior and their ability to concentrate.
When I reflect on my students who have been suspended, many of them have been diagnosed with a learning or emotional disorder, dealt with the murder of friends and family, or have experienced homelessness — all in addition to the consequences of poverty. Removing a student from school does not address these students’ struggles.
Now, I often think of the harm that restorative justice could have prevented throughout my career.
During my first year of teaching, I witnessed an altercation that resulted in a student convulsing. It was a terrifying sight. Importantly, though, this wasn’t caused by one of those brutal student brawls the media tends to sensationalize; it was horseplay between two adolescents that inadvertently escalated.
The scene caused students to cry and gasp in horror. The other teachers in the room froze, and I was immediately outraged at the student who had caused the injury, even though he hadn’t meant to hurt anyone.
Rather than offering empathy, I supported his removal from our school community via suspension. As educators, we have become so overwhelmed trying to manage misbehavior and defiance in our schools that we’ve resorted to methods that reflect our penal system, even when they may not be appropriate to the situation. It is time for a different approach.
This year, my school has scheduled monthly restorative circles. This process humanizes students and teachers, and initiates a rapport built on empathy and compassion. While altercations and suspensions have not completely vanished, our community is stronger and we have been able to de-escalate incidents more easily.
It feels clear to me that transforming school culture requires transforming how we address student behavior. That means reallocating energy and funds to crisis intervention and conflict resolution training for educators, and trauma support for students and adults alike.
We can’t forget that the criminalization of black and Hispanic youth and students with special needs permeates school districts nationally. Despite a reduction in school suspensions in the 2015-16 school year, gaps remain. The New York Civil Liberties Union reported that students with disabilities, who make up about 19 percent of K-12 enrollment in city schools, made up 43 percent of students who had two or more suspensions or removals from class.
Our schools don’t need a surplus of NYPD officers; what we need is to invest in guidance counselors, social workers, teachers, and administrators so they have the resources and skills to manage students’ emotional and social needs.
Restorative justice practices are not a means for excusing student misbehavior or providing misleading data. On the contrary, they are a worthwhile investment in our students’ well-being and development into secure and productive citizens.
Jahira Chambers is a high school educator in Manhattan and a member of Educators for Excellence-New York. She has taught English in Thailand and also serves an adjunct professor for the CUNY College Now program.