Outside, a thunderstorm is looming, clouds are growing wild and wooly over the Front Range, and lightening flickers in the distance. Inside a gently worn historic-home-turned-peacenik-refuge on Longmont’s Terry Street, Deb Witzel’s energy is also growing electric. The executive director of Teaching Peace, a local nonprofit whose motto is “waging peace with restorative community justice,” is in the midst of discussing her pet project: infiltrating local schools with a new way of working with trouble-makers and rabble-rousers as well as kids who make mistakes and the students they affront.
Restorative justice, Witzel and others say, is the future of school culture.
“Show me the person who has never done something stupid, I will show you the person who does not need restorative justice,” she says.
Restorative justice can at first sound like a Peace Corps-like insurgence to spread understanding, build relationships and open communication. Instead of a disciplinary system based on crime and punishment, this is a process of repairing harm and accepting responsibility. The offender and the victim come together to discuss, take responsibility and make an agreement that will, with hope, restore peace. It sounds fluffy, touchy-feely and something John Lennon might have opined about. Indeed, if those advocating for this emerging movement had a tagline, it would certainly be “give peace a chance.”
Despite that pacifistic reputation—or maybe because of it—restorative justice is playing a prodigiously important role in local police departments and, increasingly, schools. Colorado is one of a few states pioneering these efforts: CU was the first university in the country to create a pilot program for restorative justice, and Denver Public Schools, Boulder Valley School District and St. Vrain Valley School District have implemented or are implementing restorative practices.
“Colorado is a hot bed. There is a lot of cool stuff going on: Community restorative justice efforts, programs in schools, even various workplaces developing restorative practices for disputes,” said Kevin Pugh, dean of school culture at Flagstaff Academy, a charter school in Longmont. Pugh worked on the restorative justice program at CU; he implemented a restorative justice program for juvenile offenders at the Lafayette Police Department; and he is now starting his second year at Flagstaff.
Both Flagstaff Academy and Longmont High School (and its two feeder middle schools) are in the midst of ramping up restorative practices. In the past, Longmont High School used the restorative justice process as an alternative to expulsion and suspension. This year—with the help of an outside grant and with Teaching Peace training—they will have 17 volunteer student facilitators using the process on all sorts of issues, from disruptive students to cyber-bullying.
In his second year at Flagstaff, Pugh will focus on developing a structured system to overlay the values and principles of restorative practices and creating a peacemaker team.
“It’s really going to strengthen the community,” he said. “This whole approach is focusing on relationships.”
By nature, the vernacular of restorative justice is filled with what feels like deliberate vagueness. Pugh won’t use the word “program”—instead, it is simply the adoption of a new set of principles and values—and Witzel refuses to call the outcomes of the restorative process “punishments.” “They are agreements,” she corrects. They say restorative justice in a school setting is a collaborative process of repairing the injustice that has been done. It’s based on the principles of respect, responsibility, relationship, repair and reintegration, and those words become a major part of the community’s language in the process. It’s not about blame, and it’s not punitive.
It’s about making things right.
Increasingly at local schools, restorative justice means that once a conflict or crime has happened, the offender(s), victim(s) and others, like teachers or parents, come together with trained facilitators to discuss the offense, allowing all parties to address the incident. They look at the ways the incident in question might have caused harm—again, without focusing on blame—and how it might have impacted the parties involved. Each party takes responsibility for their role in the incident, and a contract is created.
Within that contract, victim, offender, parents, teachers or classmates make agreements that will eventually repair the damage. For the offender, that usually includes giving an apology and some sort of reparation or meaningful community service.
“You look at a traditional school, punishment/reward system, it tends to isolate,” Pugh says. “Say you have two students and one breaks into the other’s locker and steals her iPod. In a traditional setting, the offender would meet with the assistant principal and they would probably get suspended. But it totally leaves out the victim. They never really get a chance to say, ‘Hey, why me?’ There’s no way to restore that person’s feeling of safety at school.”
Another constructive part of the process is that the offender is put face-to-face with the person or people they have harmed.
“Sure, it may not be as brutal as, like, going to court, but if you are the offender, you hear how you have affected everyone in that room,” says Savannah Iverson, who will be a freshman at Longmont High School this fall. She’ll also be one of 17 volunteer restorative justice facilitators. “It hits you hard. It’s really intense. So, in some ways it seems like it’s a lighter treatment (than suspension or expulsion), but in other ways, it’s much more difficult for the offender.”
And from that experience, the offender participates in deciding how he or she will make reparations. Witzel says often students agree to do something that is as harsh or harsher than what they would have received in a traditional punishment system. This is one reason, she believes, that wrongdoers who go through the restorative justice process rarely re-offend; at the Lafayette Police Department, 90 percent of offenders have not re-offended and 96 percent of participants were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the process and outcome.
“They have the opportunity to take responsibility for what you need to take responsibility for. This is one of the best conflict-resolution solutions out there,” she said. “You sit, talk, listen to each other and do the right thing. This practice will live in them for the rest of their lives.”
She talks about a conflict between two groups of girls at a local junior high. The principal had tried everything but the students continued to wage “mean girl” war upon each other. They eventually went through the restorative process, each person involved had a chance to share and the feud was easily resolved.
Observers say that kids “get it” right away—they understand the process and they enjoy the resolutions—but parents are often the hardest people to win over.
“Our society is so focused on punishment that we don’t stop and think, ‘Does punishment work?’” Witzel says. “Most people don’t realize that punishment begets ill behavior.”
And in the big picture, Witzel, Pugh and even young Savannah Iverson say the process and the new vocabulary make for a stronger community environment, create students who communicate and accept responsibility and develop people who go into the real world able to make things right.
“I want every school in the district to use restorative practices and language. I want kids to talk this way and practice everyday. I want this to be business as usual,” Witzel says. “And, if you are letting me dream, I would love to see this become a part of school reform at a national level. This should become the way people are expected to behave.”