Schools seeking ways to help students better understand the consequences of their actions find that restorative justice practices are making a big difference in the classroom.
“When a child comes to you with a conflict, you can either heal them or hurt them. It depends on how you respond to them. Restorative justice is a way to heal relationships and that’s what matters in the end,” said Arlette Tereslener, librarian and restorative justice coordinator at Desert Oasis Elementary in Tolleson Elementary School District.
Desert Oasis students can choose to go with traditional discipline for an infraction or restore the relationship they have damaged, said Principal Claudia Espinoza.
If they choose to restore the relationship, students who have a conflict meet with a mediator and talk with each other about what led up to the situation, what happened and how it made them feel.
The insight they develop into the consequences of their words and actions helps increase their empathy for each other, which helps them work together to find solutions and restore their relationship, Espinoza said.
Video by Angelica Miranda/AZEdNews: Restorative Justice at Tolleson Elementary School District
“The students who I have worked with come in very willing to talk things out, to have a set of parameters where I get to share my side and you get to share your side, and then we get to come to an agreement,” said Alana Kopp, school counselor at Desert Oasis.
They’re also learning that they can have healthy relationships built on respect, and that “I don’t have to be your friend, but I can be your classmate,” Kopp said.
“When we get in trouble, now we can figure it out on our own,” said Contrell, a student who recently began doing mediation and reached out for help continuing it. “Ms. Kopp taught us how to do it. I was proud, because I remembered what she had taught me.”
How it helps in the classroom
Restorative justice practices have helped Desert Oasis sixth-grade teacher Anna Lesperance build strong relationships with her students.
“If they are having a bad day they can come and let me know so that I understand and I don’t think that they’re just giving attitude or acting out that day,” Lesperance said. “They can come to me with anything that they have any concerns with. They’re not going to be judged.”
After a conference with a student and the school counselor, Lesperance said she saw positive changes in the classroom and the student’s parents told her they saw the same at home.
“I’m just really glad that we have this program here, because I see it working,” Lesperance said.
“Restorative justice has come in as another layer to our positive behavioral interventions and supports and Kids at Hope program to seal it together,” Espinoza said. “It was the next step we needed in order to help the kids really think about solving problems instead of getting into more problems.”
Why partnerships are key
Tolleson Elementary School District Superintendent Dr. Lupita Hightower said Grand Canyon University’s partnership on restorative justice has been a key strategy to help prepare students for their future, by teaching them to “come up with solutions to any conflicts.”
Dr. Hightower encourages schools to use restorative justice practices but be prepared a cultural shift in thinking about how to build relationships, teach people to take ownership of situations and solve conflict.
“I would say do it. But make sure that you have the necessary training, support, communications, and follow-up,” Dr. Hightower said.
The problem-solving skills that Tolleson Elementary School District students are learning through restorative justice will help them succeed in the workplace and in the community, said Will Gonzalez, chairman of the Grand Canyon University Board of Trustees for Grand Canyon University, and a former prosecutor.
“What restorative justice does is it draws out that empathy – understanding the other (person’s) perspective – and that problem-solving skill is rare,” Gonzalez said.
The Phoenix Restorative Justice Center has trained education and justice studies students in restorative justice practices and they’re volunteering at Desert Oasis Elementary to help the students, said Art Montoya, director of the center which is part of the Balsz School District.
Students roles as peer mediators
After training administration, teachers and staff in restorative justice, relationship building, mediation, conducting restorative circles and how to resolve conflict, about 15 students in fourth- through seventh-grades were taught to be peer mediators, said Brianna Weeks, an ASU School of Social Transformation doctoral student who works at the Phoenix Restorative Justice Center.
“You’re going to see less conflict happening in the older grades when you start from a younger age really building these social emotional skills,” Weeks said.
Jasmine, a student who was trained to do mediation, said she likes it because, “You get to help people.”
“Our teachers are really fun to work with, and they helped us a lot, and now I think we’re ready to start doing it,” said Shestalyn, a fifth-grade student mediator.
“I like how kids now have somebody to go to, because sometimes they feel like they have nobody to go to. Now they can come to us, we can just ask them questions and it’s easier to solve their problem,” said Yestalyn, another peer mediator.
Now the Phoenix Restorative Justice Center is doing presentations for parents so they understand what’s now happening at the schools, Montoya said.
“We get a lot of responses from parents once the program is going that they say, ‘What are you doing with my child? I see a difference in a positive way.’ They start to see the changes,” Montoya said.
The restorative justice program “equips the students with the skills, the language and a structured process to be able to resolve conflict in a way that they can maintain the relationships that they have with their friends and/or with other adults,” said Giselle Herrera, executive director of curriculum and instruction for Tolleson Elementary School District.
“We find that this is very supportive for the goals that we have for our students, we want them to be confident, we want them to be clear on their own goals and also to be powerful and empowered to resolve conflicts when they arise,” Herrera said.
Why schools should consider restorative justice
After analyzing discipline data and realizing repeated suspensions had no impact on improving students’ behaviors or their ability to connect their choices with their consequences, Kyrene Aprende Middle School began using restorative justice conferences and practices for infractions that did not involve serious injury or law enforcement, said Renee Kory, principal of the Chandler school in the Kyrene Elementary School District.
“Students and parents have appreciated the opportunity to learn from their choices, repair any damage done, and most importantly, stay in school,” Kory said.
“We are still in the beginning stages, but we have found it to be much more impactful and effective (than suspensions) in changing behaviors as well as having students take ownership for their choices and for repairing relationships,” Kory said.
Kyrene Superintendent Dr. Jan Vesely said restorative justice “allows students to restore relationships to how they were before the conflict. This is a lifelong skill that we want our students to learn, practice and utilize. By building relationships and establishing trust with students, educators can have more impact on behavior and see more positive outcomes for children.”
Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School Principal Stephanie Phillips said her school started using restorative justice practices after a year-end data review showed students of color received higher numbers of off-campus suspensions and that several low-level infractions would eventually result in an off-campus suspension, even though the individual infractions were minor.
Since adopting restorative practices, school staff and students are more focused on relationships and understand that when there is a conflict, there is an expectation that they will work together to find a resolution, Phillips said.
How it evolves over time
After changing the questions on the student incident report form from what happened and who was at fault to who was affected, thinking around the event, and ways to solve the problem, “We noticed an almost immediate shift to from tattling to problem solving. Students were much more willing to have a conversation about a conflict instead of seeking retribution,” Phillips said.
If a conflict between a teacher and student results in the student being removed from class for any length of time, the teacher will sit down with the student for a mediation and work to repair the relationship prior to the student returning to the class, Phillips said.
“This gives the teacher the opportunity to talk face to face with a student to explain how their actions impacted the teacher and the learning of other students. The student has the chance to tell their side of the story as well. The teacher and student come up with a plan for how things will go better in the future,” Phillips said.
This year, instead of sending disruptive students to another classroom to refocus before returning to class or to the In-School Intervention room for the remainder of a class period, a teacher who could not redirect the student texts the administrative team and an available administrator comes to the classroom to talk privately with the student and this often gets them back to learning within a minute or two, Phillips said.
“While we are new to restorative practices, we have seen a big impact,” Phillips said. “In the first quarter of the 2019-20 school year, we have seen a 71% reduction in students who spend a full class period in time out in ISI. Our ISI monitor is actually able to spend time giving support to students in class as there are many days when there are no students in ISI. This represents an incredible amount of instructional hours that were previously lost.”
Why it’s worth it
The restorative practice journey is not easy, but it is worth it, Phillips said.
A few weeks ago, Phillips said she and the assistant principal spent the last few minutes before dismissal on Friday with a student who sometimes struggles to make good choices.
“Even though we have had to assign consequences this year (big ones at times), we work hard to maintain a good relationship with him,” Phillips said.
“As we were all headed out to our weekend, he looked at both of us, pointed at us and said, ‘I love you guys,’” Phillips said. “Moments like this, with kids who need us the most, are what make the hard work of restorative practices worth it.”