Restorative Justice in Schools - Lancaster Catholic High School
“Restorative justice is what made me a high school principal,” Tom Fertal tells me. I am, in fact, sitting in the principal’s office (something I haven’t done in a VERY long time!) but Fertal immediately puts me at ease – something he’s known for doing with everyone at the school, students included.
Fertal has been the full time principal at Lancaster Catholic for only a year. He explains the restorative justice link to getting the job.
In 2008, Fertal took a position as VP for Student Affairs at Lancaster Catholic. In this role, he was responsible for student discipline. But, he says, “I became concerned that our traditional punitive approach to disciplining our students didn’t match our mission and our values, not just as a school but as a faith-based organization.” Fertal had heard of restorative justice, and knew that Lancaster Mennonite School was using it as their core philosophy in student discipline. He looked for in-depth training programs in restorative justice and took some summer courses at IIRP, in Bethlehem, PA.
“I was just blown away by the power and potential of restorative justice,” Fertal observes. When he returned to Lancaster Catholic that autumn, he conducted an in-service for faculty and started talking with school staff and administrators about implementing restorative justice. However, the school was going through a major financial crisis, teacher layoffs and other issues that year and, Fertal says, “It just wasn’t the time to push new initiatives.”
But in the meantime, Fertal was eager to expand his own knowledge of restorative justice. So he enrolled in the Master’s program in RJ at IIRP. The following year, he took over as interim principal at the school, and found what he was learning about RJ to be a major help in navigating the challenges of leading a school in crisis. His leadership approach during that difficult year, grounded solidly in restorative justice principles, then led to him being offered the full-time principal’s position the following spring.
During his first official year as principal, Fertal laid the groundwork to make restorative justice the foundation of Lancaster Catholic’s disciplinary practices. He eliminated the vice principal position and created a new position called Director of Restorative Justice.
He has assembled a team of seven faculty members who will serve as the school’s RJ team. All of them have or will go through the IIRP training in restorative justice. They meet on a regular basis and are starting to take on cases with students, teachers and parents, using restorative practices to work through conflicts, disciplinary problems and similar issues.
“Restorative justice takes time,” Fertal observes, “but it is time well spent.”
He describes a recent disciplinary situation.
“We had a sexual harassment case, between a boy and a girl. We could have taken a cut and dried approach: you made comments to this girl, that’s not acceptable, you’re out of here. Multiple days of suspension would have been our traditional approach,” he says. “But we made an appeal to everyone involved to try restorative justice instead. We invited the parents of the students to a restorative justice conference, and of course the students themselves were there, as were some teachers. The biggest thing was assuring everyone that they would have a full chance to say what they wanted to say. Early on, the fathers of the two students seemed nearly ready to come to blows. Some of the parents really needed to say what they were thinking and the kids needed to hear it. We followed the process I’d learned at IIRP. By the end, the young man who had done the harassing was in tears, hugging the mother of the girl he had harassed, and the fathers of the two students were hugging each other.
Fertal observes that the teachers and staff at LCHS are finding their way through this implementation of restorative justice. “Not every case will be right for a restorative justice conference,” he says, “so we’ll have to figure that out as we go.”
And using restorative justice instead of their traditional approaches to student discipline doesn’t always come easy. Not everyone has bought into the idea just yet.
But he says, “When a kid is in their darkest moment, and they’ve done something wrong – how dare we turn our backs on them and cast them aside? As Catholics we are told that when we sin, if we confess it, we’ll be given a chance to reintegrate into the community. So how can we not offer the same opportunity for our students? When our students look back at their years in school here, we want them to remember that even in their toughest moments, their school was here for them.”
NOTE: My next post will be an interview with Lancaster Catholic’s new Director of Restorative Justice, Adrienne Howe.
OTHER ARTICLES IN MY SERIES ON SCHOOL DISCIPLINE:
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