Restorative Justice: Giving Kids a Voice

If you walk into a YES Prep Northbrook High School classroom on a Monday or Friday morning,  you’ll find the students seated in a circle, passing a talking stick and engaging in a group discussion. This past week, students were asked to reflect on how they felt about their recent report card and what actions were responsible for the feeling. These circles are part a restorative justice program. Across the nation, restorative justice measures are reducing the number of suspensions and lessening racially disproportionate suspensions.  Given recent events of violence by school officials, many schools are considering programs like those implemented at YES Prep Northbrook High School as an alternative to zero tolerance policies.

Restorative justice programs generally involve a three-tier method. The circles above are an example of Tier One: community-building spaces where students form relationships and discuss values. At YES Prep Northbrook High School, students engage in a twice-weekly, fifteen-minute circle time with their homerooms. Once a grading period, they also have circles in each of their classes, so that they build relationships in every learning community. “At first, it can be scary,” YES Prep Northbrook freshman Luz Valenzuela stated. “As you go along, you get to know each other and open up. They’re a family. You feel like you can trust the circle.”

Tier Two, restorative discipline, is a non-punitive response to conflict aimed at repairing the relationship or learning community that was disrupted by the conflict. At YES Prep Northbrook High School, anyone can request a circle and one of the school leaders will mediate. For example, a student who has a conflict with a teacher or friend may request one with Chris DiMatteo, their Dean of Students. Or a teacher may request a Tier Two circle for a whole class with a reoccurring behavioral or social issue. During a Tier Two circle, the parties address core questions:

  • Who was harmed?
  • What are their needs?
  • How will the harm be repaired?

When asked about the impact of the restorative justice system, DiMatteo stated, “A school I worked in before didn’t give kids a voice. Here, kids have the opportunity to share their voice…They’re treated fairly and with respect.”

DiMatteo also addressed two important aspects of the system : norms and follow-up. “When students have become upset [during circles],” he stated, “we restate the norms and revisit what a circle is.” Circles are voluntary and students must agree to the norms in order to participate. Additionally, Tier Two circles often result in action steps as part of the repair. School leaders like DiMatteo often check-in with the students that were involved in the mediation.  “If that isn’t followed through on, then it was just a time to share our voice,” DiMatteo stated.

Additionally, YES Prep Northbrook High School has integrated restorative justice into their demerit system. If students earn too many demerits (written notices that they’ve violated expectations), they can elect a more traditional punishment such as a detention or a restorative consequence such as a circle.

As a student, Valenzuela appreciates this system : “We are overlooked by society because of our skin color, but here, they teach us we do have a voice.”

For more on the impact of restorative practices, check out this report by the Oakland Unified School District.

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