There were 10 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.
Her parents, our school principal, several students and her boyfriend surrounded me, a teacher, as I began to share how I was affected by Sarah’s actions over the weekend.
I began, “Well, I was the one driving the van from the campsite to the grocery store when Sarah and her friend stole the bottle of vodka. After she was caught drunk, I felt embarrassed, like I should have been been watching the group more closely. I felt like it was my fault. Once they discovered what they had done, most of the others at the retreat had to deal with the issue. I was in charge of the other 20 students trying to cook the entire camp dinner. It was very stressful and I really could have used the extra adult help.”
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 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, Ryan Thon, shared about 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 kinda 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. I think drinking is just like an escape for me, but now my problems are even worse.”
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. 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.
In Sarah’s case, the RJ council and contract served as more of a reintegration into the community and a way to shorten the length of her suspension.
During our circle time, as we shared qualities that we saw in her, things like creativity, leadership, her ability in math and science, 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.
But now Sarah was being presented with a way to repair some of the relationships that she had hurt. Sarah 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.
Of many great suggestions, none of which felt punitive, we unanimously agreed on three. In addition to several days’ suspension (most of which had been served during scheduling of the council meeting), she agreed to :
- Attend a drug and alcohol counseling program
- Lead a researched classroom discussion on teen substance abuse
- Become a member of the student government group that had planned the retreat.
In the weeks that followed, Sarah completed these three items, as well as voluntarily wrote letters of apology to the adults she had affected. She was not a perfect student, but she never repeated the same behaviors. Her advisory class enjoyed the discussion she led, and they grew stronger as a group because of the honesty and vulnerability of all the students who shared their experiences. Not only did she begin attending the student government meetings, she really enjoyed them. Almost unbelievably, months later, she was voted president of the whole group!
Critics of the RJ approach contend that the punishments are not harsh enough. To be honest, I never thought suspensions were that harsh, at least not compared to the intense emotion and introspective conversations Sarah went through. Not to mention she had to face the many students who had heard about her mistake and act as a school leader despite the shame she must have felt.
I also cannot defend the sentiment that we should treat any young person harshly. If discipline’s main goal is to reform behavior, I observed this RJ methodology to be highly effective. This inclusive and humane process not only prevented recidivism but went a step farther by actually leveraging the negative actions into a net positive for the student and the school as a whole. I was hooked!
[Related article: Will Restorative Justice Work in South Bronx Schools?]
My view of discipline was not nearly this enlightened at the beginning of my career in classrooms. Having spent three years as a substitute teacher in a plethora of New York City public schools, I experienced a wide range of student misbehavior … substitutes often get it the worst.
Usually, as a substitute teacher, I did my best to manage the classrooms, but when a major incident would occur, such as a screaming match or physical fight, I was taught to simply pop my head out into the hallway and yell “Security!” An in-school police officer would promptly head into the room and remove the troubled students, after which I would say something like, “OK, let’s settle down now,” and try to get back to the lesson of the day.
I will be honest and say that at the time I didn’t give much thought to what would happen to those students. I assumed that they would get into some sort of “trouble,” but I never stuck around long enough to see the outcome of these incidents: e.g. if these students continued to repeat the same behaviors, much less if students were affected disproportionately by race or gender.
I always greatly enjoyed working with students of all ages and backgrounds, despite the hard days as a substitute and later as a certified English language arts teacher. And yet I just never gave much thought to cases of discipline. I let the deans and security officers deal with those issues as I busied myself gaining confidence in my ability to “teach.”
It wasn’t until I found myself in a small school near Seattle, working within the advisory structure of Big Picture learning, where I began to sit face to face with the fact that discipline, instruction and learning are parts of a whole, not separate entities.
I began to know my students deeply, by strength and by need. There were no security officers or deans to handle discipline for me. I began to understand the root causes of most misbehaviors I was seeing, things like early childhood trauma, poverty, low self-esteem, unstable housing, mental disorders, institutional racism and far too many schools that ask students to conform, rather than serving the student’s needs.
Further, I saw that when a student makes a poor choice, far too often students from disadvantaged backgrounds pay a significantly higher price for their actions than their more privileged counterparts. Students from poverty, especially those of minority backgrounds, and those with learning disabilities face higher rates of suspension, drop-out and more severe punishments in general.
As someone who wanted to help these vulnerable groups, I knew that the traditional discipline system was broken. I saw the advisory structure, restorative practices and student-empowered approaches to make absolute common sense.
Through Sarah’s process, it became clear that mistakes can blossom into opportunities for rich personal growth, a place to reflect, repair and re-emerge as a better student and person. I could not believe how obvious yet rare this approach seemed to be. I felt honored that I had a pioneer of a principal, Loren Demeroutis, who very early on valued Restorative Practices and had the best interest of every child at our school in his heart and mind.
I am grateful to my advisory student Ryan Thon, now a student at Western Washington University, who made it his senior thesis project to solidify RJ practices at our school and allowed me to be his mentor.
What started as a stressful night as a chaperone for a school trip emerged as the beginning of a great journey in discovering how discipline can actually be a positive experience for everyone involved. Can you imagine that?! I can, because I have now seen it repeatedly with my own eyes.
In writing this, I reached out to Sarah to see how she is doing, more than a year after this event. She is currently a senior in high school, but attending full-time community college classes as part of Washington’s Running Start program. This is quite an accomplishment, one that defies statistics, for a young woman who was suspended in 10th grade for major misconduct.
When asked to reflect on her experience with Restorative Justice, she wrote to me, “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, have felt closer to my community, and brought me closer 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, and listen to other people’s and look for a positive outcome.”
It is inspiring to hear Sarah speak of this turning point in her high school career with such maturity. I could not imagine this transformation happening had she simply faced a traditional school suspension (which could have been up to 90 days in Washington state). School, at its best, is about learning new skills, academically and emotionally, not simply maintaining the facade of perfection that most traditional schools are expecting and requiring.
RJ 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.
David Levine holds a teaching certification in English Language Arts grades 7-12 and an MFA in creative writing. He has worked as an educator in Big Picture public high schools for the past eight years in Brooklyn, New York; Seattle, and now in the Bronx, where he is currently a Restorative Justice facilitator, dean and teaching coach.
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