Restorative Justice Practices in Schools

Restorative justice practices were established by Indigenous communities thousands of years ago. The community sat in a circle. Each person had a chance to speak. Every other person was expected to actively listen. Then the problem was tackled by the community. The expectation was that a solution would be achieved. Sometimes the result led to healing and moving forward. Other times the collective good was served but an individual was harshly punished.

Our take-away in Western society was not surprising.  In a society that recognizes speed as a sign of intelligence, the most expeditious path was to skip the talk.  Look at the rules.  Apply the punishment.  Expedite.  This is how the prison system became firmly entrenched and the strap made it’s way into school practices until the early 1970’s .  The circle became a line.  The power of the process was lost.  Fear of punishment trumped understanding or learning from mistakes.

My friend, Latash, introduced me to a healing circle during an Indigenous Youth Exchange Program with middle school students in Coquitlam and Ottawa.  During part of the trip to Ottawa, rules were broken.  Safety was compromised.  I was the teacher in charge and ultimately responsible to the school district for navigating through the process.  Latash was the Indigenous support worker helping me to use Indigenous practices to facilitate the learning through an Indigenous lens.  We sat in a circle with all of the students and people facilitating the Ottawa side of the trip.  For me it was painful.  It was SO slow.  And yet, in the long game, it defined how I approach discipline with my kids and my students. 

Meaningful learning always takes place over time.  It is slow.  It is not sped up by fear of reprisal.  As a kid, I learned fear of an authority figure results in resentment.  As I parent, I learned early on that punishment frequently results in anger rather than reflection.  Energy was circumvented away from learning.   Learning is the focus of parents.  It is the mandate in the education system.  Our purpose in intervening with children’s behaviour is teaching them to understand that their actions have consequences.  It may be a safety risk.  It may be to help them adopt another perspective so they can empathize with the person or people they have hurt, either physically or emotionally.  All of the problems in history have emerged when people allow there wants to take first priority and they fail to see the humanity in other people.  The process of learning is a circle not a line. 

Restorative practices necessitate that families and schools work together.  Parents are not informed after the fact but part of the process in moving forward.  They are part of the process of teaching their child the difference between right and wrong, fair and unfair, kind and unkind.  It provides support for the student making the error in judgement to consider their motivation and decide who it is they want to be in the world and how they are going to get there. 

Restorative practices also provide a voice to the recipient of the problematic behaviour.  It is also their opportunity to decide who they want to be in the world and plot a path forward.  The opportunity to stand up straight, shoulders back, make eye contact and express their feelings and expectations.  When I was teaching Grade 5/6 one day, the class was noisy, and I was clearly looking exasperated.  James looked over at me and said,

“Want me to do it?”

My response,

“Go for it!”

“Excuse me… Do I look amused?” stated James emphatically, leaning back slightly, right toe forward, back foot at a right angle.

The class went silent.  From then on, students would beg to be chosen to work their magic.  For me, I watched as students replicated me exactly and achieved the intended result.  It became part of how I instructed students to express their truth.  Stand up straight.  Shoulders back.  Unafraid.  Unintimidated.  Lessons from my father, Dr. Peter Dyck, who was afraid of no one and listened to by all.  Opportunity is created within the healing circle for your voice to be heard.  How to project that voice so it is learned.

In any school that I have work in, the success of restorative practices has hinged on parents and school staff working together with the children involved.  Everyone must buy into the process.  Everyone must be focussed on learning rather than retribution.  This includes the police liaison officer at the school.  The voice of our police liaison officer has been instrumental in providing the instruction required in order to avoid the life altering impact of entering the criminal justice system.  The support of the counsellor has provided an avenue for the process of healing to continue.  Parents have provided the safety for their child to voice their feelings and move beyond poor choices.

Poor decisions are part of being human.  Learning from poor decisions is not guaranteed unless a process is designed.  Restorative justice practices from Indigenous cultures provide an avenue that incorporates reflection on past behaviour and learning.  The healing circle in Ottawa did not leave me as a popular entity on the trip.  However, everyone left the circle understanding the reasons for my decisions and the paramount concern and responsibility for student safety.  The process gave me a voice and provided a structure for students to take responsibility for their choices.  In schools, my goal is for student to reflect on their behaviour and navigate a path forward.  The best case scenario is to support  students making poor choices to make better choices in the future.  It is also to allow the recipient of poor choices to stand tall and say I deserve better and believe it.

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