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K-12 Restorative School Practices - Comments from Maine Educators on the Restorative Approach

An Academic View of Restorative Practices
By Jennifer Cyr, Assistant Principal
Leonard Middle School, Old Town
February 2011

In a recent pre-conference, I sat down to talk with 8th grade teacher, Jay Meigs McDonald. Mr. Jay (as he is called by the students) is a dynamic and engaging teacher. I knew going in that it would be an exciting lesson. While in our school-wide restorative practice training we focused heavily on how RP fit into our RTI behavior plan, Mr. Jay immediately saw community building circles as a powerful curricular tool and way to positively connect and engage his students. He regularly uses community-building circles, and in fact he has a designated area specifically for his class’ circles. Today, he would be using a community-building circle to introduce The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Mr. Jay was using the circle to activate their thinking around the ideas of friendship, unwritten rules and social divisions, all of which are powerful themes within the book.

When I asked what he wanted me to focus on he said, “I’m a little nervous. This circle could get messy.” My administrator heart began to pound.
“Ok, what are you concerned about?” I asked.

“Phoebe Prince.” You may recall that a year ago, 15 year old Phoebe Prince became national news when she was driven to suicide after being mercilessly tormented by school bullies. She was a beautiful, tragic symbol of peer aggression. What did she have to do with “Socs” and “greasers” in S.E. Hinton’s mid-1960′s novel you may wonder? Everything.

Mr. Jay continued, “I’d like you to watch the tone of the conversation. I’d like you to watch the transitions and adjustments and the handling of any potentially messy topics.”
“Is the group mature enough to handle the topic of suicide?”
“Yes,” he answered without hesitation, “I’m certain.”

When the students arrived and the circle began Mr. Jay prompted, “In the book we are about to read it takes a hard look at social divisions, sometimes we call them cliques. I want to remind you that social divisions have real consequences. In fact, we’re going to look at an article that shows how social divisions sometimes have severe consequences. Has anyone heard of Phoebe Prince?” You could see the students come alive. They couldn’t wait for the talking piece to come to them and the insights they shared and more importantly, the questions they raised had powerful connections to the book they were about to read, but also to the ways in which they live and operate in our learning community and the world. As the conversation unfolded Mr. Jay skillfully was able to stretch their thinking with prompts, and delicately augment the students’ interactions. ” I like that when you speak, you don’t just look to me, you look to the group because this is our conversation. I admire people who are willing to be honest, whether you were honest in the circle or even in your head with how it would really be. That’s important to knowing the reality of where you are at.”

As I watched this classroom circle I was struck by the way in which students were empowered and was so proud that this was one of many rich conversations and multi-faceted lessons happening at LMS. Whether I’m observing or participating, each time I walk away I am more firmly convinced that restorative practices are more than a philosophy; it is a way to be. At LMS, the circle has come to symbolize our strength, respect and trust as a learning community. It has elevated our school both academically and behaviorally and provided us with a constructive opportunity not only to shape conversation, but to require that each person stop and weigh their contribution–even if simply to themselves.

Restorative Practice: A Successful Process for
Managing Conflict In Schools
Tracey S. O’Connell, School Counselor
Leonard Middle School, Old Town

December 2010

The school counselors of today are both teachers and tireless advocates for those who need to find their voices. Counselors promote relationships, and encourage and teach the “art” of conversation at every opportunity. There isn’t a silver bullet to fix all problems or just one tried and true approach to use in all circumstances in school counseling. In order to allow teaching and learning to happen, many forms of curriculums and programs are practiced, which promote a necessary school culture of respect and civility. In the midst of much great professional material available, I recently have been reintroduced to an approach for solving peer conflicts and building community. It is Restorative Practice that I now use daily in my position as School Counselor at Leonard Middle School in Old Town, Maine.

We all know that in middle school students are learning about themselves and others and how they fit into the rapidly changing and dynamic world around them. Recently, I was surprised and pleased to rediscover a program that works in our school. The use of Restorative Practice in schools has been introduced to school practitioners as a way of building community and creating a culture of respect and collaboration. Those working in schools using restorative approaches notice that it can help reduce peer conflict, give students a chance to make things right, (depending on their transgression) and be a vehicle for problem solving. Our middle school is lucky enough to have an Assistant Principal who received training in Restorative Practice. She believed in the philosophy of creating a culture based on empathy, respect and non-judgment through community and problem solving circles. 18 months ago, when our assistant principal was invited to attend the workshop about restorative practice, I remember thinking, “Oh boy, I hope she loves it.” School counselor rule number one: the first step for good programming is to have key people on board. Since that workshop we have trained our entire staff on the Restorative Practice model and we are in our second year of having problem solving, detention and community building circles.

School counselor rule number two: the developmental counseling model supports reaching as many students as possible with classroom lessons or programs. Could the Restorative Practice approach support a school counseling program? Or is it one more thing to add to a growing repertoire of things to juggle; such as RTI, professional learning groups or social skill building? At a best practice sharing with other counselors that I attended recently there was agreement regarding looking for ways not to reinvent the wheel. Let’s do what works. Reflecting on this restorative approach and how it works supports a developmental approach. I realized that I have the ability to use a program that supports the goals of my program, “to meet the needs and to support all students.” I am invested in using a program that meets the needs of my students. Middle school students are aware of what is going on around them, have a need to communicate with others and are constantly learning and challenging the world around them. Restorative Practice is one method of resolving conflicts that gets results and is exciting at our school. I have found that by being involved in circles, and using circles for student directed problem solving, more students are reached than by just seeing one or two in my office. By using restorative circles I am giving them tools to solve problems, a way to discuss their issue in a safe place and to resolve a problem before it gets out of hand.

I have also been invited by teachers to be a community member for their community building circles. In addition, our school principals and I use the circle process to navigate the tricky waters of issues with families. The process allows more than one perspective to be heard and allowing input from parents is essential.

I have found that the Restorative Circle process has helped my middle school program and students to be successful. It isn’t easy, and is not a magic wand. It does help give students and their parents some skills to help solve problems and break down barriers in communication that might be blocking conflict resolution with peers. Most importantly, it is critical to have a supportive and trained staff who consider the process valuable and are willing to use it.

Winslow Junior High School‘s “Restorative Journey”–So Far
By Penny Linn, Guidance Counselor and
Maryann Nyman, Circling Coordinator

In May 2008 Winslow Junior High School embarked on a journey to incorporate restorative school practices (RSP) into our school community. Initially we looked to this paradigm to replace the archaic and less than effective system of detention utilized in our school and most other public schools over the years, but discovered that the use of these practices reached well beyond this singular view. RSP provides many tools for fostering positive relationships that are the foundation for creating a healthy school. The circle process creates a positive and safe environment where students and staff work together in building a community.

Building community necessitates developing and maintaining relationships. Circling provides a forum to air concerns about the school community, as well as addressing harm that influences relationships. Following are some examples of how we have utilized circles within our school community.

Winslow Junior High School, like many schools, is confronted with name-calling and bullying between students. During the first three months of school there were multiple circles with the 6th grade classrooms due to the high incidence of teasing, name-calling and bullying. Generally, a teacher outside of the Team facilitated these circles so the classroom teachers could participate as a community member as well. Often these circles resulted in contracts reinforcing individual responsibility for repairing the harm that had been caused due to the student’s behavior. Within a short time both teachers and students were requesting circles to address a variety of behaviors occurring between students and between students and teachers. The results were very positive and by the middle of the year there were very few requests from sixth graders for circles due to harmful behaviors.

Circles have been used frequently at Winslow Junior High School to address student and teacher relationships. They provide an opportunity to clarify communication by offering a forum outside of the classroom facilitated by a neutral individual. Last year a student believed her teacher was not treating her fairly. The student was becoming very frustrated and disruptive in the classroom. She requested a circle. This allowed the student to voice her feelings and point of view, and in turn the student heard the same from the teacher. With direction from the facilitator each was able to express her needs and a plan was developed for giving signals to one another so misunderstandings would not occur in the future. Although this relationship was restored with one circle, repairing relationships often takes many circles.

The students frequently ask to hold a circle when they experience social problems. They have expressed the need this way: “Circles are a safe place to express how you feel, and a safe place to confront someone who has hurt you.” Recently, four members from a girls’ athletic team requested a circle with the team members, because one girl felt she was being ostracized by her teammates. Rumors circulated quickly throughout the school concerning the treatment of the girl, and eventually students and parents voiced concern about the situation. Three circles were needed to provide ample time for the ten girls to voice their concerns, to set straight the misperceptions that existed, and to repair the harm that had occurred. In the end, the girls learned a great deal about each other and became aware that they shared the same fears and worries, desires and dreams. The team became closer because they strengthened their relationships. And just as important, the good results spread into the community. An e-mail from one mother stated, “My daughter is feeling so much better now. This experience (circling) has given her the boost to stand up for herself and the confidence to go to a circle if something like this should ever happen again. I am so glad the girls have you (the facilitator) to trust and talk to.”

Winslow Junior High School has replaced the traditional detention system with RJ Circles. These are facilitated by volunteer teachers as part of their duty schedule. The RJ Circles provide an opportunity for students to discuss the behavior that earned them the circle, how it affected others and what will be done to repair the harm. The circles provide a forum for students to be heard as well as the person who was harmed. This necessitates the shift from punitive to restorative practices; from blaming to cooperating. This process encourages the student to take on responsibility for the behavior and to be actively involved in repairing the harm s/he caused.

Community circles are being implemented more frequently as we enter into our third year of RSP. One teacher has “snack” circles periodically with the classes to provide a time students can discuss concerns, successes, needs and so on. Another teacher utilized the circle to discuss the students’ behaviors during the previous day with a substitute teacher. It was a structured opportunity for the students to take ownership for their behavior, as well as giving them permission to voice their frustrations with substitute teachers, often the result of the situation rather than a specific teacher. Another teacher was having a difficult time with one of her classes because there were several students presenting distracting behaviors. She had frequent circles with the class that were facilitated by another adult to work with the students to develop solutions to the problem at hand.

Implementing RSP is analogous to teaching a new language to teachers and students alike. Initially it tends to be awkward for the adolescents and the adults as they experience this new paradigm shift, but everyone wants to have a voice and to be listened to. Circles provide a forum where all members of the community can be heard in a level playing field. The circles are providing this opportunity at Winslow Junior High School and the results indicate they are having a significant and positive impact on our community.

Restorative Discipline at Messalonskee Middle School
(Oakland, Maine)
By Jon Moody, Assistant Principal

School discipline, although nary as published as athletics nor as frequently examined as the curriculum and instruction delivered in our schools, is one of the aspects of school life that gets the most scrutiny from students, teachers and parents alike. In the interest of informing the greater educational community and sharing our experiences, we would like to examine the restorative transformation Messalonskee Middle School has undergone over the past three years.

To understand our shift to restorative practices, it is first important to examine what exactly our restorative approach is. Simply put, our restorative approach transitioned us away from a more traditional punitive structure (where discipline is assigned based solely on the end behavior and is scaffolded up each time an offense occurs) to one where consequences are designed to hold the student accountable, assist him or her in understanding the impact of their actions on others, and to provide assistance in restoring the wrong (generally in the form of an apology) while addressing the root problems that caused the infraction to occur. We have attempted to transition away from working solely with the outcome of the problem (the misbehavior); a restorative approach focuses on how the individual can repair the harm they have caused to the school and people within it while learning the tools necessary to avoid similar incidents in the future.

In the 07-08 school year, after having been trained as a staff in the Community Circle discussion process, several staff members discussed and explored ways to transform the office detentions that occurred at MMS. At that time a detention required students to quietly sit in a room with a monitor for one hour while doing their school work. Several staff felt that this time could be better served instructing the students in how to appropriately behave, rather than providing them with time to complete their work. In exploring other options, a small group of our CAB (Communities Against Bullying) Committee traveled to Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast to examine what they were calling “detention circles.” As a result of this visit and the follow-up discussions that occurred, four staff members and I enrolled in a graduate course on restorative practices through the University of Maine at Orono.

Upon returning from that class we shared our plan for how we might reshape our detention system with Mr. Hatch, our building principal. Our goal was to incorporate within our detention process, four key questions for students to examine: What happened? Who has been affected and how? How can we put right the harm? What have you (we) learnt so as to make different choices next time? We believed that by requiring students to examine the roots of their behavior and its ramifications more closely, we could help them to work to repair the harm they had caused while giving them some tools to avoid similar misbehaviors in the future. As a result of this meeting our restorative detention circles and Saturday detentions were born.

From that point we trained fifteen individuals in facilitating circles, seven of whom chose to do detention circles as part of their duties. Over the course of the 2008-2009 school year restorative detentions replaced the traditional detention. In restorative detentions students not only discuss what they did and the impact of that behavior on others, but they also come up with a way to give back to the school through the contract they sign with the facilitator. In some cases a contract asks that a student simply apologize and ask the individual they harmed for forgiveness; in others, they do a service for the school. Last year students created posters and digital media discouraging bullying, they swept the floors, assisted teachers with classroom preparation, and helped our lunch crew, all as a way to make reparations for their actions. We had transitioned from sitting quietly working in detention, to sitting in a circle engaged in a conversation designed to help students avoid future similar behaviors while learning empathy and being given the chance to give back to their school. Our students feel they are more accountable for their actions than ever before.

Saturday detentions (which run from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon and include a one-hour restorative circle) replaced most of our suspensions that were assigned for non-physical situations. The goal with Saturdays was to avoid pulling students from classes via suspension for discipline infractions resulting from escalated misbehaviors that were not of a dangerous nature. We want our students in class learning and this next level of consequence allowed us to keep our students in class while still holding them accountable and providing them with an opportunity to go through the restorative circle process.

Few things in schools are done exclusive of other school-wide initiatives, and our middle school is no different. It is important to note that prior to exploring the change in detentions, our school went through a training provided by the University of Maine’s Peace Studies Program on the Community Circle process. We have continued annual trainings with our staff on circles and feel that this effort has supported the change in discipline that has occurred over the last three years. This type of whole-school approach is significant when making a change to the culture and community of the school and I would strongly suggest that others, if considering a move to restorative school discipline, examine the circle process for communicating first.

After a year of implementation we have seen how significant an impact the restorative approach can have on behavior in our school. Last year we saw an impressive reduction in both detentions (32%) and severe infractions (34% reduction, suspensions & Saturdays). Our success was not simply limited to the reduction we saw in discipline infractions, but also in the increased discussions that occurred through the restorative process. We had students giving back to their school through restorative conversations and through physical efforts to make right the wrongs they caused through their actions. We currently have fourteen staff members facilitating restorative and Saturday detentions and have worked collaboratively with area schools including Lawrence, Waterville and Winslow to better utilize a restorative approach in our buildings. We are excited about the transformation we have made and are eager to continue this work in the years to come.

Restorative Discipline Analysis 05-09

Restorative Practices at Troy Howard Middle School
(Belfast, Maine)
By Kim Buckheit, Principal

We continue to utilize restorative practices throughout the day at Troy Howard Middle School. This is our 4th year and the process of change has been powerful and transformable. When we originally began by changing the way we operated within our detention program we never anticipated the “spill over” effect that occurred.

Teachers, as a result of facilitating detention circles, began to embrace restorative strategies throughout the school day with students. Listening to students in circle gave them a fresh perspective to view all students thus valuing the relationship daily. Gone are the days of “what will an administrator do to solve a student’s behavior problem” (and believe me, those days existed here in the past!). Now everyone assumes ownership (student, teacher, administrator, secretary, custodian) and works daily to build and maintain positive relationships.

We don’t even think about what we do anymore in terms of “implementing the restorative justice program.” It is now just the “way we do things around here.”

Restorative Justice at John Bapst:
Students Aren’t Fish, So Why Treat Them That Way?
By Elizabeth A. Wood, Dean of Student Affairs
John Bapst High School, Bangor, Maine

Anyone familiar with fishing knows the term “catch and release.” Well, until this year the disciplinary system at John Bapst was similar–let’s call it “detain and release.” Students who broke the rules would try to avoid being caught in order to avoid the punishment they knew would follow. When they caught violators, the administration, faculty, and staff would detain the offender in a state of suspended animation (any alumni recognize the time-honored detention command “simply exist?”) and then release the student at the end of a 45-minute detention period.

As John Bapst students and faculty became familiar with the concept of Ethical Literacy, this system began to look more and more like a missed opportunity. Our mission at John Bapst is to educate students. A true education consists of more than essential facts and subject-specific skills that one learns in math, or English, or art. Because we want to recognize and reward both academic achievement and achievement in demonstrating the attributes of a good citizen, we fail in our mission unless we also educate our students within a framework that applies the essential values of our motto: integrity, achievement, and respect.

In 2004, working with the Institute for Global Ethics, we formed an Ethical Literacy Team to consider the values we wanted to guide us as a school community. A core group of three administrators, eight teachers, and over twenty students provided ethics training to all John Bapst students, faculty, and staff. During that time, our students identified their core values as honesty, respect, responsibility, and fairness. Those values, along with the values stated in our motto, are the ones that we are now trying to instill, encourage, and maintain.

What does that have to do with crime and punishment? The goal of our ethical literacy work comes down to two basic ideas that we want to be part of the atmosphere for students at John Bapst: (1) respect is given to students and (2) personal responsibility is expected from students. These two ideas apply everywhere–in class when teachers are present, in hallways when they are not, at home when students are on Facebook or on the telephone with each other, and after they graduate and leave us. If we are successful, our students will see that they can achieve great things and be better people when they choose “the harder right rather than the easier wrong.”

Working toward that end, we have changed our disciplinary philosophy and have begun moving to a new system that teaches respect for others and responsibility for self. This system–called restorative justice–better fits the philosophy of John Bapst by acknowledging that even discipline is a learning opportunity.

How does it work? Restorative justice is more complex than our old system of “detain and release.” Its essence is that instead of simple blame and punishment, we help misbehaving students deal with the harm they have caused to individuals and the school community. Misbehavior involves more than breaking an abstract rule; it’s a violation of a person or a person’s property and the school community at large that the rules are designed to protect. A restorative approach is all about repairing the relationships that are damaged when rules are broken.

We are not Pollyannas here; we know that teenagers, like adults, are sometimes going to break the rules. Under our new system of restorative justice, when students do not live up to the John Bapst Code, they must speak with the Dean of Student Affairs about their actions. They are informed of the reason they have been asked to appear and then hear statements and questions like these: Let’s talk about this. Tell me what happened. Who (or what) has been affected by what you did? What needs to happen to put things right? How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again? What can I do to help you?

After the student and the administrator have come to a conclusion about what happened and an agreement of what can be done that most nearly restores the situation to the way it was before the violation, a directly related consequence is assigned. For example, if a student creates a mess in the lunchroom, he or she may be assigned to spend five to ten minutes a day for a week cleaning the lunchroom. If a student harasses a classmate, there may be a session with the offender, the victim, and the Dean involving a discussion about what happened and why it was damaging, followed by an apology. If a group of students deface school property, they may be assigned school service projects to correct the damage and then go beyond that to make the school facility better.

We all make mistakes. Real responsibility requires one to understand the impact of his or her actions on others, along with an attempt to acknowledge and put things right when that impact is negative. Our students are emerging young adults who are getting ready to take their place in society as fellow citizens. At John Bapst, they are going to be treated with the same respect that we expect from them. If restorative justice works as intended, we hope to see a student learn a valuable lesson from the restorative justice process and then try to avoid a recurrence for reasons other than simply avoiding punishment.

Moving away from the traditional system of “detain and release” doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for one’s actions. It does mean that the consequences are more in line with what we say we value–respect for our students and their acceptance of personal responsibility. Under the restorative justice practice, the consequences might be perceived by students to be harder than simply serving an hour of detention. But, using the restorative justice approach tells our students that we see their mistakes as an opportunity for learning, growth, and community-building, not as something they should try to cover up or deny. Our hope is that if we take this attitude, then so will our students.

Restorative Practices at Waterville Jr. High School
By Kristen Gilbert, Assistant Principal

Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Knowing that data show that suspensions and detentions do very little to encourage good behavior, Waterville Junior High School (WJHS) decided that rather than continue to suspend our youth at-risk and hope that the student would return “cured,” we needed to start looking for ways to solve problems and become more proactive in our approach to managing behaviors. The methods of holding students accountable for their behaviors through suspension and detention have long proven to disenfranchise the students whose connection to school is often fragile, at best. We needed a method that would hold students accountable while simultaneously reinforcing connections and meaningful relationships to adults at WJHS.

In the spring of 2007, our discipline committee read an article about how Restorative Practices were being introduced into school systems. The article highlighted how this approach focuses on building relational literacy and how students’ connections to school are strengthened in the process of repairing the harm that has been caused by their actions. The following fall, WJHS teachers attended a training and returned ready to adopt some of the new skills and techniques we had just learned. Restorative conversation circles were introduced in the place of detentions, and suspensions were shortened, if not eliminated in some cases, and met with a restorative conference.

Currently, in our second year of implementing restorative practices, we have the goal of having our students think of behavior in terms of community and their relationship to their community. We are shifting from a punitive model to a philosophy that holds as one of its tenets, that when students falter, it is our responsibility to educate them by means of an intervention that is restorative in nature such that students can grow from their mistakes, while nurturing the bonds that exist in their community. Furthermore, we at WJHS recognize that this shift in philosophy also serves as a proactive means of mitigating behaviors through the development of relational literacy. In practice, this translates to the use of weekly community circles during Advisor/Advisee; teaching, through our health curriculum, about the importance of restorative approaches; and working to incorporate student voice through our School Climate Committee. Our most current efforts, aimed at shifting practice, are guided by student voice through the formation of student focus groups. By conversing with students about their views on how WJHS can become a safe and welcoming place for everyone, we continue to take steps forward in our understanding of how developing relational literacy and restorative practices can turn WJHS into a school that is safe, fair and responsive to the needs of all.

Reflections on Restorative Justice
By Don Baker, Assistant Principal
Mt. Ararat Middle School, Topsham, Maine

My experience as a parent and educator has led me to the conclusion that punitive means of discipline often times do not lead to sustained change in behavior, but, in fact, may perpetuate the undesirable behaviors we are attempting to eradicate. Punitive measures frequently erode adult-youth relationships, prevent young people from taking personal responsibility and do little to restore the emotional and social health of the perpetrator, victim or associated members of the community.

Restorative Justice practices offer hope that behavior can change, accountability can be accepted, harm can be authentically addressed and relationships can be restored and enhanced. Restorative Justice takes considerable time, effort and commitment and offers considerable promise and opportunity.

I believe Restorative Justice offers an unprecedented opportunity to improve the quality of our relationships with students, improve the culture of our schools and increase student capacity for learning.

(A longer version of this piece first appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of the Changing Ways Newsletter (PDF) )


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The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469