The title of Sunday’s last conference session was “Taking Back our Schools– Organizing to Stop the School to Prison Pipeline.” It promised to discuss restorative justice. I walked in and sat in the second row. It started with a short film about the school to prison pipeline. I had heard this before, Marian Wright Edelman spoke of this at NCTE back in November. Here I was again, drawn to the topic again, circling back.

The video disturbed me. I knew the stats: If you are suspended you are three times more likely to drop out of high school. 80% of incarcerated youth have been suspended and 50% have been expelled. While correlation does not equal causation, it certainly can be argued that overreactions to smaller discipline problems are part of the problem. The video provided multiple examples of apparent overreactions. I was not prepared to see police officers with German shepherds in school hallways, ordering everyone down. Students hitting the floor so they could be searched for drugs. That was an eye-opener.

The presenters asked us to hold our questions until a bit later, so they could get through the entire session as planned. They sensed the room could talk about this subject for hours. I could. I chose to attend this session because my district recently implemented a new discipline policy which has caused a lot of frustration at my school site. We were told we could not use certain words (like consequence) and that in effect, there was nothing that could be done any longer for students who were acting out. They couldn’t really be disciplined by being removed from class. The district would come down hard on any principal who disciplined a child in any punitive way. That is how it was explained to us. And what we saw was children who were beginning to catch on that they could pretty much do anything, and nothing would happen. What a disaster of a discipline policy. I knew there had to be more to it. So here I was, learning.

circle forward

The term restorative justice is a big and general term for some very specific practices. It is modeled after traditional justice and accountability practices of indigenous peoples, especially the Maori of New Zealand. It is primarily a relationship building program that aims to prevent harm by growing communities. It aims to teach children (and adults) that we are part of communities. We must hold ourselves accountable to our communities. Communities, as opposed to rules or policies. If I know you, and I have a personal connection to you, I am much more likely to want to honor that connection and not act the fool. And if I do, then I need to make amends, and enter back into the community, not be isolated and punished.

This is what my former partner Henry and I used to do with our fifth graders. It was called Magic Circle and was a part of the Human Development Program. It focused on community building through conversations held in a circle. Everyone was in. We would talk about some general topics, and then we would make space to talk about any conflicts that had come up. We taught students that we as humans have needs. Conflict arises when your needs are not being met. Being loved/liked, belonging, autonomy and respect were the four we focused on. So, when you are upset because someone cut you in line, the root of that anger is not the person with whom you are angry, it is not being respected. When you are acting out on the playground after a lunch where no one would sit with you, your basic needs of belonging and being liked are not getting met. We would practice four-part messages where we learned to express what we wanted and what we needed in clear ways. This circle was another full circle to the work Henry and I used to do. We both still do the four-part messages. Why did we stop holding circles? Time pressure? More testing, less teaching? Full circle again.

My favorite part of the presentation was hearing Ayesha talking about her experiences using restorative justice community building circles with her students at a middle school in Watts. The power it gave students to handle problems on their own speaks to the power of community. It was a very hopeful and positive message. It works.

She had us try it. We sat in a circle, we passed a talking piece, and we talked about something she would suggest, like “Talk about a person in your life who inspired your teaching.” We listened to each other without interrupting. She showed us how to do a version of “jazz hands” when we wanted to cheer for something, so we could maintain a quiet, listening circle. We also played a few games. Just fun. Giggles. All in a circle. Getting to know one another. A community in circle.

The new discipline policy of my district is aimed at “embracing proactive, non-punitive enforcement strategies.” Yet, it seems to ignore the preventative work that is vital for this policy to have an ice cube’s chance. My goal is to help my colleagues embrace the circle and get to the heart of each of our students. Because once you know you belong, you can overcome and achieve almost anything.


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