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Restorative justice in the schools

“Restorative Justice” is a concept that is revolutionizing student discipline in American schools. This new approach to behavior management empowers students to take responsibility for their own actions and for the culture in their school communities. These newer ideas are not widely used in West Virginia at this time.

In lieu of the highly punitive concepts and dehumanizing practices that guided the old “Zero Tolerance” methods used in the 1990’s, “Restorative Justice” schools encourage students to participate as part of a school community where they can ask questions, observe problems, air grievances, and have some say in what should be done when conflicts occur.

When a faculty adopts “Restorative Justice” the students are encouraged to participate in a three-part structure:

1. Community Building Circles where students may make suggestions to their teachers and administrators about changes they would like to implement.

2. Conflict Resolution Circles that help to mitigate contentious situations by forming small groups to prevent fights and resolve disagreements.

3. Reintegration Circles help those who have been suspended return to full participation within the community. This supportive school culture helps students learn to govern themselves and become part of their community.

Where these practices have been used, the school culture has changed. Less bullying and fewer fights occur; attendance increases and suspensions decrease. Both teachers and administrators have less stress when such programs are successfully implemented. However, the faculty must embrace the new philosophy and understand the changes that should take place before embarking upon such a radically different approach to shaping human behavior.

A local fifth grade teacher helped me understand what shapes responsible human behavior best. She said that wise parents and teachers do not do anything for a child that he or she is ready to do for herself or himself. In many ways adults must allow youth to take responsibility for their own behaviors. The problem is that kids are not all ready to take on certain responsibilities at the same age, and the variability of maturity level is most pronounced during middle school years.

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