Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Oakland’s Fremont High students sit in a restorative justice circle with Horace Mann Elementary students.

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In a recent community circle with my students, I discovered that the majority of them worked 40-plus hours per week over the break, and at least part time during school, to earn money for school events such as homecoming, graduation and college applications. They were struggling to get homework done with the burden of their jobs. I made some quick adjustments and gave them quiet work time to catch up.

The students were grateful and very productive later in class. One of my students said she was “dealing with a lot.” We talked a bit, and she seemed calmer after our conversation. I had shared with the circle that I had just gotten news of a family friend’s death, and a student stayed after class to express her condolences and to talk to me about a death in her family. We shared a hug.

Even though this short routine has nothing to do with the content of my courses, it is a vital part of all of my classes. I gain important insight into the lives of my students, their struggles, their needs and their goals. I often see students reach out to help their classmates in need, whether it be offering to attend an important game, volunteering to tutor a difficult subject or having a supportive conversation. These circles create a classroom environment that is based on caring. They are the base of an approach known as the restorative model where the focus is on deepening the connection between all members of our community.

Restorative practices are modeled on how Indigenous groups promote peacemaking and engage with offenders. The idea is that offenders must be “restored” to their communities through reflection, conversation and making amends. The aim is to create strong communities which work together to support members and hold them to high standards. The model embodies a more positive approach to student behavior.

My school officially adopted a restorative approach to behavior in 2017; we trained the staff and three interventionists. When students acted out or misbehaved, instead of suspending them to sit at home, we had in-school suspension with intervention. Students had conversations with a trained adult, wrote and reflected on what happened and planned how to make things right. They used this time to apologize to teachers, have supervised, structured conversations with classmates and even do acts of service. The interventionist got to know the student and their situation and could refer them to services — such as providing bus/trolley passes and schedules for students who may be chronically tardy due to transportation issues, referrals to a local agency for mental health services, addiction counseling, food/housing assistance for families — and would educate students on issues that might be affecting them, such as trauma and addiction.

I was a part of the intervention team, and I saw that this system often made a big difference in the way that our students behaved. One time, for example, a student, who I’ll call “Josh,” stole a phone that he subsequently sold. After initial writing and discussion, including reading an article about amends, Josh volunteered to apologize and to give the victim the money he got for the phone. I spoke separately with the victim, “Sasha,” and her parents, who agreed. This lessened tensions and taught Josh how to deal with mistakes in a thoughtful way. We showed him that we truly wanted to find a way for him to move forward in our community. I saw this happen over and over: Our students knew that the adults at this school cared for them and wanted to work with them, which was impactful.

Today, teachers everywhere are reporting out-of-control student behavior. Some of the solutions advocated and implemented — from suspending students to cutting off privileges, such as access to school events — to are proven to be ineffective at best, and harmful at worst. While suspensions may provide a teacher or school a respite from dealing with a particular student, students who are suspended are more likely to eventually land in prison.

This is true of my school as well. Although my school and district are labeled as “restorative,” we have cut the funds, cut the restorative team and reverted to responding to negative behaviors by suspending students and requiring them to “serve” Saturday schools. This has done little to help our students return to their community.

If we want our schools to be a place where students, parents and staff feel a sense of belonging and trust, we need to recommit to building community and fully fund restorative practices with behavior intervention. We need to learn — or relearn — to be relationship-centered. We need to create spaces where we can all speak from the heart and be known to each other. We need to take the time to have difficult conversations, show students the impacts of their behavior and commit ourselves to their futures.


Louise Williamson teaches 10th grade English language arts and peer mentoring for juniors and seniors at Hilltop High School in Chula Vista. She is a current Teach Plus senior writing fellow.

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