Back to School - Part 2 - Restorative Justice in Schools

A fight broke out in the middle of the hallway at a Lancaster area school. Two teenage boys – one black, one white – threw punches and hurled racial slurs at each other.

“Things got pretty nasty,” Assistant Superintendent Miles Yoder recalls.

Teachers broke up the fight and sent the boys to the principal’s office.

At many other schools, both boys would most likely have been suspended under “zero tolerance” policies. Fighting, physical aggression and abusive language are the most common reasons for student suspensions in schools across the US, according to a 2010 in-depth national study of school disciplinary practices. (1)

Luckily, the boys were students at Lancaster Mennonite School, where “zero tolerance” was replaced with restorative justice as the foundation of the school’s disciplinary practices 10 (yes, TEN!) years ago. In fact, Lancaster Mennonite was the first school system in Lancaster County to adopt restorative justice in such a comprehensive way.

Both boys, their parents, and a few members of school staff sat down together to talk about the harm each of the boys had caused, not only to each other, both physically and emotionally, but the embarrassment they had caused to their families and the harm their fighting and racially-charged insults had done to the school community. Together, the boys worked out a detailed agreement that both of them would complete a course in conflict resolution, do some community service work within the school, go to individual counseling, and spend time getting to know each other better.

Miles Yoder describes taking this type of restorative justice approach to school discipline as, “an investment in relationships.” He acknowledges that it might take a little more time up front, but says, “Once you establish better relationships, then in the long run you won’t have the same amount of conflict within the school community. It’s a proactive way to address problems.”

At all of the Lancaster Mennonite campuses, school administrators and teachers have seen beneficial ripple effects of using restorative justice for situations ranging from fights like this one to school truancy.

He’s heard people who haven’t been exposed to restorative justice express concerns about whether restorative justice is “soft” on offenders. Yoder sees it as just the opposite.

“If we’re really serious about changing behavior, restorative justice is a tougher approach,” he observes. “We consistently get feedback from students that these face to face conferences are HARD. Some students would rather take a suspension instead of having to sit down and face the people they’ve hurt. They get very nervous about it. Restorative justice means that they have to take very direct accountability to address the harm they’ve caused.”

Yoder adds that the true impact of restorative justice goes well beyond the written agreements spelling out steps the offender will take to “make things right” with someone they’ve hurt.

“We consider restorative justice part of our ‘hidden curriculum,” he explains. “It teaches our students important skills and principles about how to get along with others. Those skills will serve them throughout their entire lives.”

As for the two boys who’d been fighting in the hallway? Two months after their restorative justice conference, both were at a school basketball game. One played on the school team, and the other was a spectator. When the boy on the team made a buzzer-beating shot to win the game, it was the other boy, his former enemy, who was the first person to rush onto the court and hoist him into the air in celebration.


School-to-Prison Pipeline: Restorative Justice Cuts Suspensions and Expulsions (from Reclaiming Futures)

Restorative Justice: A Working Guide for Schools (from Alameda County Schools)

Restorative Justice in Schools – Further Reading Resources (from Kris Miner’s Circlespace blog)

(1) Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis (from the Southern Poverty Law Center)

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: city life lancaster pa restorative justice peace

Next: Restorative Justice in the Community

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