Restorative Practices and the Formation of Conscience and a “Justice Culture”

Jenny Zito
Jenny Zito, Executive Committee, Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform, and Co-Chair of MAJR’s Front Door Committee

Restorative Practices help children internalize the expectation that their community should be just and equitable along with the confidence that they have the skills to make this work.

“Restorative questioning involves open-ended questions to help individuals process an incident and reach a solution. For example, a teacher may ask students: What happened? Who has been affected by the actions? What do you think needs to happen to make things right? This practice supports the integration of student voice into disciplinary problem-solving.”
– Easton Raye Gaines, Restorative Practices and Student Well-Being in Urban Schools

The opportunity to have a voice in understanding and resolving problems can then be internalized inside of the child so that they feel they understand how conflicts arise, have responsibility to behave well, and have confidence in their own abilities to move forward constructively. This combines conscience formation with a proactive and positive spirit of involvement in the community.

The following is one illustration of how I think about restorative practices playing out in real life.

Imagine a high school student (let’s call him Gene) steals a phone from a fellow student (Beth). This is a serious offense…easily involving hundreds of dollars these days and, thus, must carry consequences. An all too frequent reaction in many schools would involve punitive actions like suspension, if not an arrest.

But this high school is a Restorative School. They know that suspension (even more so arrest) is frequently the first step toward being permanently ensnared in the criminal justice system with devastating consequences for both the student and society in the future. Instead, the teacher who discovers that the student stole the phone has a stern conversation with Gene, making it clear his action is wholly unacceptable, but that there are alternatives to suspension or arrest. The teacher also discusses the situation with Beth, who agrees to sit down with the teacher and one of the school’s administrators as well as Gene and try to find a satisfactory way forward. The teacher involves the administrator because of the seriousness of the offense.

Gene’s and Beth’s parents are informed of the events, but agree to not being invited to participate in the first meeting with the students, because they agree, as high school students, that it is appropriate for Gene and Beth, under the guidance of the school staff, to deal with the situation personally in the first instance. They are also told they will be invited to a second “Circle” meeting to debrief.

The “Circle” meeting occurs and it centers around the three core restorative practice questions: what happened?; how did it impact you?; and what needs to happen to move forward? A note: part of the backdrop to the conversation is that both Gene and Beth know circles are routinely used in their classes and in resolving conflicts. They have even heard about circles being used when there is conflict between staff members and between teachers and administrators in their school. In middle school, they remember that every Friday, all the sixth, seventh and eighth graders gathered with the objective being to build the middle school community. One of the activities in those sessions was the opportunity for students and teachers alike to rise to thank another student or teacher for something specific and then, again, the opportunity for students and teachers alike to rise to apologize to somebody for some action. So the idea of the Circle was not a new one.

The Circle of Gene, Beth, the teacher and the administrator took place the next day. Each share their respective views of what had happened. There was pretty much agreement on those facts. Gene acknowledged that he had stolen the phone from Beth’s locker when he noticed it was unlocked. They shared their reactions. Beth had been particularly sad because she had saved a long time to be able to buy a new phone with a good camera. Gene said that at first he had been really happy, thinking that he had gotten away with it, but he did have some guilty feelings when he had seen Beth in class looking pretty sad and knew why. But he said he really needed the money that would come from selling it. Of course, he said his feeling changed a lot when he knew he had been caught.

Then they turned to the moment of accountability in asking the question so what must happen. The teacher and administrator made clear that stealing an expensive phone was not a little thing. Beth said that she thought it was only fair that Gene face some measure of punishment, but that she certainly did not want him kicked out of school or turned over to the police. Gene, by this time, had become pretty contrite. He said he was sorry and that he knew that it was wrong and offered to pay the money back. Beth was able to point out that if that was all that happened it was not very much. Before stealing the phone, he did not have the phone or money from selling it. If all he had to do was pay Beth for the phone, he would be no worse off than when he began and she would be no better off.

After a lot of discussion, they agreed that restitution was important but that, in addition, Gene should have to do 30 hours of service on activities co-designed with the teacher and approved by Beth. In addition, it was agreed that Gene would have at least four session with the school counselor that included conversation about how his life was going but also around securing help for his getting a job of some kind so he would have some money without stealing it.

This first Circle was followed shortly thereafter with Gene’s and Beth’s parents participating. They affirmed the decisions that Gene and Beth had made. They also told the teacher and administrator that they appreciated the school’s system of accountability that took these incidents seriously but also came at them in a way that sought good and lasting outcomes for the young people.

This example is what Ross and Martha Snyder called a “justice culture”, a community of people that expects the best from you, and believes in the importance of each person’s rights and responsibilities. In their book “The Young Child as Person: The Development of Healthy Conscience” they describe many stories over their years as educators in which children who initially behave selfishly or aggressively with others, are able to grown into healthy and happy youngsters because they find themself in a community which has a “justice culture”.

One of the things that restorative practices does best is involve the child in the process of thinking about what is good behavior, what responsibilities you have to others in your community, and the expectation that the members of the community can work together to solve problems. Ben Franklin said “involve me and I learn”.

There is perhaps even something stronger than “learning” that we witness in the restorative practices at schools, it is a “becoming”, children growing into young people who believe in just practices, who expect fairness and justice, and who are competent facilitators of creating a just world.

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