By Beth Baker, M.S.Ed., coauthor of The PBIS Team Handbook: Setting Expectations and Building Positive Behavior
Restorative justice gained acceptance in schools as a response to the ineffectiveness of the zero tolerance policies districts often had in place when students brought weapons to schools. Students were expelled, no questions asked, and the “why” of the behavior was never explored. With the advent of the positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS) framework in schools, many districts began looking for other ways to help students and staff cope with challenging behaviors in the classroom. Restorative justice, which includes peace circles, was a practice that many districts used to replace traditional, punitive forms of discipline.
The Peace Circle
Peace circles are a proactive way to address situations before they become problems as well as a good way to address incidents after they occur. The peace circle consists of the person who felt harmed, the person who was the offender (sometimes these people seem interchangeable), and community members. A trained facilitator keeps the circle focused on the topic and summarizes the conversation. The facilitator may want to speak with the victim and the offender before the circle to determine the heart of the issue and concern. These conversations can help guide the questions used in the circle.
There are three basic questions that should be addressed in a peace circle:
- Who has been hurt?
- What are this person’s needs?
- Who is obligated to address the needs and help restore relationships and community?
Trained community members (usually students and staff) can help the students with problem-solving, making amends, and restoring peace to the community.
Restorative Justice in Action
I recall an incident that involved two students who had gotten into a fight. Parents were called, and the school offered a peace circle in lieu of the usual suspension. However, if students couldn’t keep their agreement, the school would suspend the offending student for three days. The parents agreed, and a peace circle was called. As facilitator, I asked a series of questions to help both of the students involved tell their side of the story. It is amazing how often a fight or argument is because of a misunderstanding or miscommunication. We had trained students participate as community members. They told how this incident had affected them (disrupted the classroom, made the hallway feel unsafe).
Everything was put on the table—the victim was able to identify how he felt during and after the fight, and the offender was able to say why he had wanted to fight. The initial misunderstanding was cleared up. The next step was for the community members to determine the apology of action (we did not let kids get off with a shoulder shrug and a “sorry” as an apology). Choices included:
- Weekly meetings with the social worker to learn calming strategies
- Performing community service around the school
- An apology, either written or verbal
- An act of kindness or generosity performed outside of school
In this situation, the community of students decided that the two students would have weekly meetings with the social worker as well as apologizing to each other. This approach decreased the potential for long-term arguments, power plays, and more fights between the students.
Training and Resources
Peace circles, when done with integrity and purpose, value students and increase feelings of safety. School personnel can use them to help address the underlying cause of a behavior incident rather than just doling out suspensions. Students often leave circle with a sense of responsibility (to be better in their school community), restored relationships (with other members of the community), and respect (both for the community and for themselves).
It should be noted that schools must invest in training for staff before implementing restorative justice and peace circles, and training should be with a reputable organization. I received training through the Minnesota Department of Education and another organization in my area. Proper training is vital to the success of restorative practices. You are asking students to share their deepest feelings and their hurts. You are asking students to honor the confidentiality of the circle. And you are determining consequences for, sometimes, serious offenses.
Beth Baker, M.S.Ed., is an independent behavioral consultant and intervention specialist at Minneapolis Public Schools, where she works to create positive behavioral environments for elementary students. She was formerly the lead PBIS coach for a school district in the Minneapolis metropolitan area as well as a special educator working with students who have emotional behavioral disability (EBD) needs. Beth is currently on a two-year leave of absence while she is teaching and living in Caracas, Venezuela.
Beth Baker is the coauthor with Char Ryan of The PBIS Team Handbook: Setting Expectations and Building Positive Behavior.
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