Humans of Restorative Justice stories highlight the individuals working to build and restore strong relationships in their communities. They are written and edited by David Levine, of The National Center for Restorative Justice, based on interviews with real-world practitioners.
Restorative Justice (RJ) can be described as a relational approach to addressing conflict. It is about building strong relationships in communities and working to repair those relationships when they are harmed.
RJ aims to empower people on all sides of a conflict to come together to be heard and to help restore peace, rather than simply assigning punishment to those who have caused harm. This is particularly important in the school setting, where students of color, those with disabilities and other marginalized groups have been shown to be disproportionately targeted by exclusionary forms of traditional discipline such as detentions and suspensions.
This story is from David himself, about a public high school in the Bronx, New York.
When I heard the commotion, I grabbed my black radio and hurried quickly out of the Restorative Justice office just in time to see Javier (not his real name), a junior, punch in the plexiglass window of a large hallway display case. The principal of our high school was standing nearby and several students and teachers had popped their heads out of doorways to see what was happening. Other support staff and I quickly walked Javier into our office to cool down and began talking with him and interviewing others to piece together exactly what had happened.
The facts of the incident were pretty straightforward and agreed upon by all, including Javier. He had been in the main office and had just been informed that his schedule needed to be changed, apparently for the second time. The school was having to make schedule changes to ensure that everyone’s credits were on track for graduation, and these adjustments were causing stress to many students during these first few weeks of school.
Javier was frustrated about his new schedule and had stormed out of the office loudly protesting. The principal, standing near the door, followed him out, trying to explain the necessity of the schedule changes.
Javier turned to her and ended his loud rant with something like, “Don’t even talk to me, you’re a b—ch and I hate this f—-g school!” right before turning to the display case and punching the window. We were all grateful this was not real glass and there were no injuries to his hand, but the display was damaged. These were the facts.
But once we had Javier calmed down in the RJ office, he began to explain why this had happened. As in many such cases, there were more layers to the incident than it might first seem on the surface.
I love telling people that I work as a “restorative justice dean,” a title I pretty much made up for myself. My official role is simply dean, a position that most people associate with the handling of student behavioral problems and the handing out of traditional forms of discipline such as detentions and suspensions. The dean’s office is where you would go in most public high schools when you were “in trouble.”
In contrast, restorative justice is often associated with trying to find alternatives to these traditional punishments, by holistically assessing a situation, seeing how the root causes might be alleviated to prevent future problems, creating a space for conversation and accountability, and looking for ways to creatively repair harm to community relationships. So, by combining these two titles into one role, it often made people stop and think.
In a school like ours, with a great deal of conflict, the title also captured the complex needs and desires of the school community for emotional support as well as for order and safety. I was proud to be a part of this new effort at the school and grateful that Javier had the time and space to fully unpack his side of what had just happened.
After talking with him, it became clear that this incident was not so much about the schedule change, but that he still held on to a lot of resentment from events of the previous year. Apparently, he had made some bad decisions and was not allowed to go on the end of the year field trip to an amusement park. He was heartbroken by this decision and felt it was not fair, especially because his trip deposit was not returned. Because it had happened right at the end of the year, and before the school had fully began implementing restorative practices, this disappointment never was resolved for him.
Javier told us, through streaming tears, that he had “done so much for this school,” had “decorated almost every school dance,” and “could not believe they were treating me this way.” He felt betrayed by a school, and a principal, he had once loved. The schedule change was just a catalyst at the beginning of the new year that allowed this eruption of anger and emotion.
On one hand, Javier had clearly broken two of our school’s core values, respect and safety. But it was also evident that the real root of the issue was that his relationship to the principal and the school was greatly damaged from the previous year. He could have faced a traditional punishment such as detention or possibly a suspension, but that would probably do nothing to fix the way he felt toward the school community, and his anger and hurt would keep bubbling over into more incidents.
It seemed clear to us that we needed to do a restorative conference, a gathering of the relevant stakeholders in the matter to make sure that all people were heard and we found ways to repair and move forward for good. Javier listed a few staff members, including the principal, who he associated with the field trip decision, and a friend he wanted in the circle for emotional support. We also invited a teacher and a school secretary/ parent coordinator who knew Javier well. In addition, I was there to facilitate the circle along with the other school dean.
We did some preconference meetings and eventually gathered these people together for the circle. All participants were aware of the school trip issue the year prior and understood that before Javier could take ownership of his actions in the hallway he needed to be heard about this.
And so, in that circle, he was heard. All the staff members involved (I was not at the school the previous year) stood by the decision to ban him from the trip, but the principal did express that it had been a very hard decision, and one that needed to be made quite quickly on the day of the trip itself, based on a concern for the safety of another student with whom Javier was having conflict.
There was not a real resolution here but Javier got to say how betrayed he felt and how much he felt he had given to the school. It opened up a touching moment between Javier and the school secretary, where he said, “I always saw you as kind of a mother to me, and after that I just felt like you turned your back on me.” To which the woman responded, “Javier, I still love you. Even though I was not happy with your choices, you are young and I know that you still have a lot of learning to do. If you want to help us decorate the next dance I would love to have you be a part of it.”
The principal stated that even though she stood by her decision of last year, she agreed that it could have been handled better and explained more clearly to him. She expressed how much she liked Javier and all the talents that she recognized in him. The mood of the circle began to soften and it seemed that he could now begin to own his outburst in the hallway and work to repair relationships with these staff members, relationships that he clearly missed having.
Javier was now apologetic for his outburst in the hallway and was asked to list the people he thought were most affected by it. He settled on the principal, whom he had insulted, and the other students in the hallway classes, whom he had disturbed and perhaps scared. We then went around the circle stating a few positive qualities we each saw in Javier (and he in himself), to help us find areas of strength that he could draw from to repair the harm.
I love this part of the circle, seeing a young person receive so much praise at a time when they are also being held accountable for a poor decision; it serves to separate the harmful choices from the essential good of the person. One skill that kept emerging was Javier’s artistic ability. This also related to the schedule issues he was having, as he no longer had an art class this semester. He jumped at the suggestion to use this passion to make things right with the community.
To address the damage to the display case, which was currently empty, Javier agreed to design an artistic display. In this way, he felt he would be adding something that would show respect to the whole school. To repair the relationship with the principal, he offered to draw a portrait of her while sitting with her and talking. The circle agreed to these proposals, set due dates and scheduled the days after school that he would stay to work on completing these items.
I knew this aspect would please some of the more traditionally-minded staff who were still a bit leery about the effectiveness of RJ. The fact that the after-school work on these items would look somewhat like after-school detentions would help them see that he was not “just getting away with cursing out a staff member and breaking a window.” It would take time for some to accept that the detentions and suspensions of the past were not very effective and that this new way of dealing with conflict could go a long way in improving the school culture.
Simply put, the work that Javier did to fulfill his contract absolutely blew me away. For the 3- by 6-foot display case he created a colorful diorama of the Hollywood hills, replacing the HOLLYWOOD sign with letters spelling out our school name instead. Each letter was cut from paper and propped up by toothpicks on a large hill made of carefully crumpled construction paper. It was beautifully done. From the ceiling of the case was a collection of white origami cranes hanging in the air from fishing wire. He spent hours working on this, and it showed.
The portrait of the principal happened in one 45-minute session, where Javier sketched her while they talked and she worked on sending emails at her computer. She was satisfied that it did not take much time away from her many responsibilities but still allowed her to be a part of the RJ process and reconnect with Javier. The beautiful portrait now hangs, framed, behind her desk.
If you or someone you know would like to be interviewed, please contact David Levine at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Levine has worked as an educator at public high schools in Brooklyn and Seattle, and as a restorative justice dean in the Bronx. He is currently a course facilitator at the National Center for Restorative Justice, an organization that provides training for those looking to change their relationship to conflict.