New Paltz school Board members are exploring alternative ways to bring harmony and order into district classrooms by using the practices of restorative justice. They learned from Dana Katz, a program director at Family of Woodstock, that while much of the preliminary training in these approaches wouldn’t cost money, the only way that they will succeed is through a massive cultural shift that would have to start with teachers and administrators.
The concept of restorative justice is that, by empowering people to work through challenges together, problems can be resolved in a less punitive manner that results in fewer issues overall. In theory, successfully implementing restorative justice in the schools would mean fewer suspensions (in school or out), fewer referrals to administrators, fewer fights and conflicts and less time spent in detention. The primary practices involve securing consent and agreement from all participants (adult and child alike) in processes that involve “circles” in which all voices are heard.
Board member Glenn LaPolt admitted that he and his fellow Wallkill district teachers were a bit skeptical when they underwent training in that district, but their confidence improved and many of them are now using community-based circles in their classrooms. According to Katz, these can be used during the course of teaching to introduce curricula or check in with students, and are usually facilitated by the teachers themselves.
When issues arise, administrators can step in to facilitate restorative conference circles, which might include the “responsible party,” “affected party” and any support staff members who are familiar with the situation or the players. Used as an alternative to punitive measures like suspensions, the goal of this type of circle is to determine consequences that are appropriate to the incident. Katz offered as an example a student who creates graffiti spending a day or two working with a school janitor.
This type of circle might be used to interrupt a destructive cycle, such as a child being regularly sent to the office by one particular teacher. Among the goals are repairing relationships between the parties and determining what needs to happen to prevent issues from arising again between them or with others. However, not every student is going to benefit from this alternative system. “There has to be some accountability,” she warned.
Such a program requires a culture shift, one that begins with “collegiality” among staff members and unambiguous support by administrators. Trustees can “be persistent” in encouraging and asking about implementation, Katz said, but it was clear she felt that all staff members needed to be behind the program for it to work well. Training through Family of Woodstock has been provided in the Wallkill, Kingston, Ellenville and Rondout Valley school districts already, and in addition to that service, particular cases can be referred for additional support through a program called “180.”
With the 180 program, Katz explained, students are assigned case workers who meet with them particularly and support restorative justice generally. Issues around fighting and insubordination could be alleviated by the teaching of coping strategies in the face of whatever triggers those responses. Restorative conference circles result in agreements about consequences, and case workers help students implement their end of whatever bargain is struck. Case workers can also step in and facilitate these circles, which can be especially beneficial when administrators are new to the whole concept.
Family staff members are trained under the “culture of care” model developed by Dr. Tom Cavanagh, Katz explained, but as outsiders they cannot create such a culture within the schools, only support one. That work is left to those working there day after day, which is why restorative justice only works when teachers and administrators believe in it.
The training and support provided through Family of Woodstock would not have an invoice attached, but board president Michael O’Donnell acknowledged that there would still be costs in terms of staff time and attention. Moreover, that’s just baseline training in restorative justice which is provided via the nonprofit, and more advanced learning would almost certainly have a price. With leaders in several Ulster County districts testing the waters, it’s possible such learning could be facilitated through BOCES; even if that wouldn’t reduce the cost up front, a portion of money spent on BOCES programming comes back in aid the following year. Trustees agreed that they would continue to look into this alternative model.