SARAH GROUSTRA/SAGAMORE STAFF
In our fast-paced society, complex ideas and concepts regularly devolve into buzzwords. As the high school continues to deal with the repercussions of racially charged student incidents, the phrase “restorative justice” is often mentioned when the topic of punishment comes up. While the phrase is new to many students and faculty, many argue that when put into practice, restorative justice would bring about a much-needed radicalization of the way the high school mandates discipline.
Restorative justice is a subsection of a larger framework known as Circle Practice. Adapted from Native American rituals, Circle Practice provides a discussion structure that emphasizes compassion, honesty and safety. Restorative justice protocols utilize Circle Practice to make sure both sides of a story are heard, and instead of mandating discipline, restorative justice emphasizes reconciliation.
According to school social worker Kate Lipman, Circle Practice is most commonly used in three distinct forms. The most basic use is simply for community building. The secondary, and more intensive use, is good for discussing “higher octane issues.” The tertiary, and most intensive use, colloquially known as restorative justice, is used when an individual or group is ready to admit to a harm they have caused and make amends.
Alternative Choices in Education (ACE) Coordinator Amy Bayer said she was drawn to restorative justice after her experiences watching students undergo discipline when she was a teacher.
“I often felt like the detentions and suspensions and those measures of discipline were not actually changing student behavior, and in some cases would make it worse,” Bayer said. “Students would feel ostracized, and it would create more acrimony between the teacher and the student and the other students, rather than really helping that student learn from whatever they did.”
According to Lipman, part of implementing restorative justice requires a school-wide cultural shift from a “punitive” mindset—focused on what rules were broken and how to punish the perpetrator—to a restorative one.
“A restorative culture looks at what relationships were harmed, and how can we make it right,” Lipman said.
Bayer believes that restorative justice is more powerful than traditional disciplinary practices because the students are required to come face to face with the consequences of their actions.
“There’s something very humanizing when people have to face each other and not have a scripted apology but to really listen to each other; that process of listening and having to wait your turn to speak forces you to really take in what you’re hearing,” Bayer said. “Often when people are in conflict they’re so charged that they’re already thinking about the next thing they want to say to the person without actually listening to the other person, and it’s sort of useless. They’re not hearing each other. Circle forces everyone to take their time and take their turn to really be thoughtful about what they say.”
Steps have already been taken to integrate the protocol into school discipline, including a faculty interest group, and a meeting with Superintendent Andrew Bott discussing restorative justice use throughout Brookline Public Schools.
A restorative justice session was also used for the reintegration of a student involved in the September incidents involving widely distributed Snapchat videos where racial slurs and derogatory language against the African American and Latino Scholars Program were used. Proper discipline in regards to the event was intensely debated in the community.
Bayer and Lipman were both involved in the Circle handling the reintegration. According to Bayer, who acted as a facilitator during the Circle, the experience was “remarkable.”
“It was obviously a high profile situation, and it had high stakes. I think everybody who participated in the Circle had some anxiety and trepidation going into it for lots of different reasons,” Bayer said. “There was so much pain that happened in a pretty short amount of time with the release of those videos and then also the feelings by students about how the whole situation was handled by the administration. There were a lot of layers to it, so the Circle was complex. It wasn’t just about the videos.”
Lipman agreed that restorative justice was an “excellent” tool to use in this disciplinary case.
“It can really bring a sense of healing for those that are impacted the strongest, and it really allows people to take responsibility for their actions in a way that feels unifying for all that are present,” Lipman said.
Bayer is optimistic after the experience and hopes that its success bodes well for the use of Circle Practice in the future.
“It gives me a lot of hope that it’s beyond the vision stage now, and that we may actually get some traction and get more people trained in the building,” Bayer said.
While restorative justice is garnering support due to high profile uses such as the reintegration case, Circle Practice has already been successfully implemented into regular use within the high school.
Bayer uses Circle Practice during programs such as advisory. According to Bayer, the goal of applying Circle Practice to ACE is to provide students with an equalized safe space to not only voice concerns about the community, but also as a time to simply and genuinely check in.
In a traditional Circle, everyone is seated. A talking-piece is passed around in order to ensure that there is only one speaker at a time, and the topic does not shift until every member of the Circle has received the piece. One person is the designated circle-keeper, or facilitator. It is their job to pose questions to the group and maintain the safety of the space, but it would actually invalidate the point of the Circle if they took complete control—for instance, even the circle-keeper is only allowed to speak when they receive the talking-piece to ensure everyone participating has the same amount of power. The goal of the discussion is to eliminate traditional hierarchies and equalize the space in order to validate everyone’s opinion.
Mariam Levy, program coordinator at the Suffolk University Center for Restorative Justice, one of the leading institutions in Circle Practice training and implementation, is adamant about honoring the indigenous roots of Circle Practice, calling it a “gift” from its original facilitators. Levy was trained in Circle Practice by members of the Pakish Tonga tribe, native to the Yukon region.
“There’s a sense that we don’t own this,” Levy said. “We were just trying to help modern institutions try and figure out how to use some of this real, ancient indigenous wisdom about how to be together in a community; how to come together in a community, and how to feel harm together and how to make that work within the modern structures and the modern system that often can feel harm.”
According to Levy, her work in Circle Practice has permeated many aspects of her life, including her family’s culture.
“It’s about really trying to create shared values somewhere in a community,” Levy said, “so creating these shared values together, paying attention, being intentional about that, and then having practices to be able to come together around these values in a regular way.”
According to Bayer, restorative justice could have a permanent home in the high school, and the practice would eventually eliminate its own need.
“Initially, it may take some time to manage the load, but over time, the school would be more accustomed to the practice, and it would end up being more preemptive,” Bayer said. “So it would deter more things from happening over time. There would be less demand on the practice once the school embraces that culture, and the culture takes hold.”
As program coordinator, part of Levy’s role at the center is to facilitate intensive two-day trainings in Circle Practice. She has worked with many different institutions, including detention centers and residential treatment programs. However, the occupation she sees most frequently is teachers. According to Levy, the trainings are very experiential-based. By spending multiple hours sitting in Circle, the experience ensures that “it doesn’t feel just like another trick, or it doesn’t feel just like another skill—it feels like you’re rooted in where this comes from and the ideas behind it, so that you can successfully figure out how to change it or use it in your context.”
Lipman said that the biggest barrier to full integration of the protocol into the building is making education and training available to the faculty. However, she believes that just a brief taste of sitting in Circle converts people into strong supporters of the practice.
“People come together; people that were the most separated and most at odds with each other feel such a wash of healing that they’re then able to build bonds after that,” Lipman said.