Restorative Justice is an approach towards discipline that focuses not on punishment for misdeeds but on helping those involved take responsibility for what they have done and helping them fix the harm that they have caused. It’s a radically different way of handling the mistakes that people make and requires a paradigm shift in every person’s thinking and the institution’s policies.
Over the last 2 decades as an increasing number of schools and districts have used RJ Practices (RJP) as their ‘go to’ approach when they respond to harm in their buildings, they have seen their suspension rates drop significantly. This in itself is a great step forward. It keeps our young people in school and off the streets, thus maximizing their chances for graduation and success in life.
What hasn’t change, however, is the disproportional rate at which students of color, especially those of African descent, are being suspended. They share this disadvantage with Special Education students and those who are LGBTQ. This reality has led many RJ organizations and practitioners to self-reflectively deepen our understanding of what else needs to take place in our schools to uproot the structural biases which remain.
Increasingly, many in the RJP movement have come to view our work in schools through a Racial Equity (RE) lens. This lens looks not just at discipline issues, but also at what is taught in our classrooms; calling for culturally responsive and historically accurate curricula. It challenges staff to look at their implicit biases (we all have some) and make changes in their practices. And, it strives to include the voices of all students, staff and parents in the decision-making process at each school. This deepening and broadening of our schools’ missions is indeed challenging and yet ultimately necessary in order to address the needs of our historically marginalized students and staff.
In crafting our programs and trainings using this RE lens, CCCS places students and ‘non-professional’ staff at the center of our approach to making fundamental changes in school culture. Our focus on establishing a ‘culture of self-reflection’ dovetails well with working to uproot our internal biases. And, the imperative to teach the true history of our country, while not a part of our RJ work with Deans, Principals, students and staff, is a belief that we firmly hold.
We look forward to working with your school or district to help you transform your buildings from being alienating, punitive spaces to being safe and caring communities.
Two programmatic examples of this approach are the 100% Respect Campaign and the New York City Department of Education’s (NYCDOE) Pilot School Project in RJ.
Our initial foray into Social-Emotional Education occurred more than a decade ago. When Matthew was the Dean of Students at East Side Community High School in New York, NY, he developed this program. This campaign saw every adult and young person cooperatively develop behavioral guidelines for themselves and then work to hold each other accountable. Over a number of years suspensions fell dramatically and students and teachers improved their interpersonal dynamics and academic achievement. The school is now a beacon of excellence and increased social-emotional maturity.
The key to this effort is the Defining Respect Activity (DRA). This takes place in Advisory Class and Faculty Meetings where all students and staff define what they feel respectful behavior should look like in three categories: Student to Student, Student to Staff, and Staff to Student. Once all ideas are compiled, Student RESPECT Reps (SRRs) and Staff RESPECT Advisors (SRAs) synthesize these into three sets of behavioral guidelines. At Town Hall Meetings, these guidelines are presented, clarified and ratified.
The difficult stage is implementation of these guidelines. RJ Practices, such as Peer Mediation, the No Excuses (NoXQZz) Mediation, and Harm Circles are used to hold everyone accountable.
More recently, CCCS was hired by the DOE to help 18 schools with high suspension rates move from a punitive discipline paradigm to one that embraces RJ Principles and Practices. Led by former classroom teacher, Asst. Principal and Dean of Students, Matthew Guldin, these schools have lowered their suspension rates by 35% within the first full year of the program. Both staff and students are learning to employ restorative practices.
There are a number of factors essential to this process. First is having an RJ Coordinator in each school. This person's role is to facilitate the formation of a Restorative Justice Action Team (RJAT) composed of principals, deans, counselors and classroom teachers. Once up and running the RJAT will increasingly become the driving force that will be leading each school in the transition from a retributive disciplinary approach to a restorative one.
Of course, developing authentic student leadership is extremely important to the success of the project and in many schools our RJ coordinators are collaborating with their schools’ counselors to start peer mediation programs. In schools that are doing the 100% RESPECT! Campaign, a group of young leaders called Respect Reps (RRs) reside at the heart of the Campaign.
Finally, it has proven essential to have each school’s principal on-board as she/he sets out the path that her/his school will follow. Toward this end, Matthew works directly with his principals individually and in groups supporting them in leading this effort to make cultural change.
CCCS provides two strands of focused restorative justice and racial/ethnic equity in education training:
- For Principals – “How to Successfully Lead the Process of Cultural Change”. In this 2 day training module, we demonstrate the depth of the cultural change that needs to take place in order to transform a school from being an alienating, punitive space to becoming a welcoming, restorative community. Through 2 days of work, merging theoretical and experiential activities, school leaders will come away with a ‘head and heart’ understanding of how profound the change in culture that we are talking about really is. Principals will be exposed to “The 3 Big Ideas” which underlie this paradigm change in approach, but are rarely talked about explicitly in Restorative Justice circles. They will also grapple with “The 5 Essential Building Blocks” of making cultural change that I have identified through my practice as being necessary to address in order to shift staff and students’ thoughts and actions. Day Two will end with concrete planning sessions focused on just how to do this. Principals will also learn how to successfully collaborate with their Dean in leading this profound process of cultural change. Follow up coaching and consultations are also included.
- For Deans – “Restorative Deaning”. The object of this 4 part series is to help Deans get a grasp on the depth of Restorative Justice theory and see how it can be applied concretely when anti-social behavior occurs within their school community. Through a combination of experiential activities (role plays and more) and theoretical work, Deans will learn how to step by step change the daily functioning of their offices; transforming them from being places where students are sent when they are ‘in trouble’ to spaces that students voluntarily seek out when issues arise. Instead of being lectured and punished in your office, students will learn how to handle their emotions more maturely and work problems through peacefully. Deans will learn to lead “The No Excuses Mediation” (an RJ form I developed in 2005), facilitate traditional “Repairing The Harm” and “Reentry Circles”, and be exposed to the complexities involved in handling victim/offender situations where there is a distinct power differential. Examples of the latter are patterns of bullying and sexual harassment. Finally, they will learn how to successfully collaborate with their Principal in leading this profound journey of consciously changing the culture of their school. Follow up coaching and consultations are also included.
In this interview, Matthew Guldin describes the background of the 100% RESPECT! Campaign, its roots in Social and Emotional Learning as well as the Restorative Justice Movement, and its relation to his lifework in education.