Studies show that there have been more incidents of violence against teachers. An American Psychological Association (APA) survey of nearly 15,000 school staff shows that almost 60% of teachers feel victimized in some way at work.
Experts from the APA Task Force who conducted the study recommended improving teacher training programs to place more emphasis on managing student behavior, in addition to providing social learning training. emotion to all school staff. The working group also supported the Comprehensive School Mental Health Pilot Program Act which supports restorative justice as a social-emotional learning technique to strengthen relationships between students, teachers and school leaders. But as can often be the case with referrals – whether through lack of funding, will or support, for example – schools fail.
“We saw behaviors at a level that we had never seen before in my high school,” Marta Schaffer, an English teacher in Oroville, Calif., told me earlier this year. “There were fights almost every week, attacks on staff and teachers and fights in classrooms.”
Schaffer says there are four social workers to meet with students from the three schools in his district and no restorative justice program. With limited mental health resources, student behavior during the first in-person year after pandemic remote learning had been erratic and unpredictable.
What is restorative justice?
Restorative justice (RJ) programs are small discussion groups called circles – because of the way people sit around each other – used to build community and respond to conflict. One person speaks at a time and everyone gets a chance to speak or pass.
The RJ circles are composed of three levels: First level circles focus on building and maintaining community; they are meant to build relationships, so conflicts are less likely to occur. When conflict arises, a level two circle is set up to address and repair the harm. Tier Three Circles provide individualized support to someone returning to the community. “It can be a student, a teacher or someone who comes from incarceration. We want to identify what they need to be successful and help them achieve it,” says Yusem.
OUSD has had RJ since 2007 and in 2017, they invested 2.5 million dollars in their JR programs. Yusem works with facilitators based in middle and high schools in the district. He says the goal of the facilitator is to “create an environment where teaching and learning can take place, where one feels safe, welcoming, where social and emotional learning can take place and where students can begin to access the part of their brains they need to learn.”
OUSD had built a strong foundation with restorative justice practices when the pandemic forced students and teachers into lockdown. They continued to do RJ Circles online to support students. “We would do circles for people affected by COVID,” says Yusem. “They were for people who got sick themselves or had to care for a loved one or lost a loved one.”
Restorative justice in the classroom
When the students returned in person, Tatiana Chaterji, the JR facilitator at Kimberly Higareda’s school, had to do a lot of work to help the students feel comfortable with each other again. In OUSD, all ninth graders are required to take its RJ leadership course at least once. “RJ is about relationships, and I think relationships have been weaker,” Chaterji says of his students. Because the students haven’t seen each other in a while, some conflicts have been simmering for years and may have gotten worse due to social media.
“My day-to-day feels like a lot of training, teaching, and introducing empathy,” Chaterji says. “Trauma, neglect, youth, social media, ego, and all kinds of negative forces that encourage us to be so self-centered keep us from caring about others.”
RJ helped Higareda stay in touch with his peers during remote learning. While his online classes were “dead silent,” people talked during online RJ Circles even as they kept their videos muted. “I really think it helped me because I knew the names and I knew the voices. Without that, I wouldn’t have known anyone,” says Higareda. Although she stayed in touch with some peers through online RJ Circles, Higareda says her in-person relationships with classmates were strained.
For example, in his RJ leadership class, there was tension between upperclasses and underclasses. Higareda and other juniors felt that younger students were not making their mark in projects and activities. “We were friends with each other and not them,” Higareda says. “At times, we were yelling at each other. I saw a few people yelling really bad words and comments at each other,” she says. The class made a level two circle to manage the conflict.
Higareda is the oldest in her house, so when it was her turn to speak, she told her classmates that she was tired of being a leader all the time; she wanted others to take initiative and contribute to the class community.
“This circle opened up this space for us to talk and express our opinions and it was great afterwards. We all learned something new,” says Higareda. earlier in the year were following each other on social media and hanging out outside of class.
“We all go through so much,” Kimberly says. “I’ve done so many circles where people actually become more vulnerable and I see them for something more than what they’re expressing.”
A care ecosystem
Santa Ana School Districts, San Diego and Los Angeles have invested in restorative justice programs. “There’s still a huge movement to adopt these practices in schools,” says Andrew Martinez, another member of the APA’s Violence Against Teachers Task Force.
Martinez studied effect of RJ programs in New York schools. The research took two years to find out if restorative justice could reduce suspensions. Based on his interviews with more than 80 students, he found that restorative justice programs strengthened students’ relationships with the school, but did not reduce suspensions. This could be because the suspensions have as much to do with adult decisions as with student behavior.
“The science that underpins restorative justice practices in schools has lagged,” says Martinez. Without research and numbers to support the success of restorative justice, it is difficult to lobby for funding for restorative justice programs in schools.
Even still, Martinez sees similarities between how teachers have used restorative justice circles to navigate community violence in New York public schools and how restorative justice is used to address poverty, loss and inequalities after the pandemic. “It created a space to hear about a lot of concerning things that are going on in children’s lives,” says Martinez.
He recommends that RJ be part of a care ecosystem in a school. Once caring adults know what students are going through, they can refer them to additional support like psychologists, social workers, and counsellors.