The school to prison pipeline, or the connection between exclusionary practices in education and juvenile incarceration, is a consistently relevant topic in the education world. The old system was one that saw a large racial disparity with students of color being disproportionately affected by major discipline referrals. A system that prioritized incarceration and consequences over education. This is a system that many school districts, including Portland Public Schools, are working to disrupt through implementing restorative justice (RJ) practices in schools as an alternative to the current zero-tolerance policy that’s common in many schools. The goal? According to the PPS Restorative Justice Program Manager, Char Hutson, the goal is to, “reduce disciplinary referrals, lower dropout/push out rates, elevate school climate measures, increase attendance, and promote greater academic achievement.”
PPS has divided their schools into Restorative Justice Focus Schools and Responsive Schools. The Focus Schools have participated in initial restorative justice training and demonstrated that they have the time and resources to go all in. Focus Schools will eventually receive a long list of restorative services and supports including: collaboration with school administration to build or add to an existing RJ team, on-site support for classroom circles, co-facilitation regarding RJ Tier 1 interventions, formal and informal coaching and co-facilitation on restorative conferences.
Here at Franklin, one of the district’s Focus Schools, some progress is already being made. One person involved in the implementation here on campus is the Student Intervention Specialist, Nic Johnson. He describes restorative justice as a triangle with three points. The first and most important is community building, which happens school wide in the promotion and teaching of our Franklin Strong values. The second point is the maintenance of this community building. The third point is repair or the resolving of problems and conflicts. The amount of repair needed should be reduced by successful implementation of the other two points of the triangle. One more commonly recognized practice associated with restorative justice is the use of “circles,” which can be implemented by teachers and other school staff both to build community and to repair harm when it occurs.
These circles are meant to build a sense of community and connection. The group of people doing the circle form a physical circle (if classroom space permits). The keeper, often the teacher in a classroom, leads the meeting. They start with an introduction that can include an introduction of the values that should guide the circle process. The circle keeper will then pose a question or topic which depends on the purpose of the circle. A talking piece is introduced and is passed around the circle so only one person can speak at a time. Everyone is allowed to the choice to not speak. Only one person speaks at a time and the talking piece can make it around the circle several times. The circle technique is based off aboriginal and native traditions in an effort to lift barriers between people. Mr. Johnson did express some concern for the comfort of teachers and is aware that not all of them may feel properly trained in restorative practices. Overall, however, he feels that the practice of restorative justice is important and thinks, “you can get more out of your high school experience if we provide more.”
Restorative justice practices aren’t just being implemented in our school district. At the Restorative Justice Institute of Maine, they help schools implement and maintain restorative practices. Ryun Anderson, the Executive Director of the Institute, says that the main piece of advice she would give to schools implementing RJ practices is, “when it gets messy you have to keep moving through that.” She advises that giving up when it gets difficult means you won’t be successful in implementation. She also recommends that teachers be expected to do circles and that they have lots of coaching and support to do so.
It’s going to be a process of about three to five years, but Franklin is working on successfully implementing restorative practices. PPS will be phasing it in slowly across the entire district to shift school culture from punitive to more relational.