Creating a Culture of Restorative Justice

By Abner Oakes

ISA's Director of Outreach


During sweltering summer days in 2013, the staff of the Institute for Health Professions at Cambria Heights gathered at ISA’s headquarters to plan the opening of their new Career and Technical Education School in Southeast Queens, NY. Under the direction of the school leader, Gareth Robinson, the staff of eight educators began discussions about school culture, development of norms, and setting expectations. Restorative justice practices and distributed counseling were at the forefront of our discussions. The goal was to create an environment where appropriate behavior, centered on the school’s character principles of openness, resilience, grit, conscientiousness, creativity, focus, empathy, and compassion, is expected and deviations from that norm are addressed fairly.

Establishing a Fairness Committee was the approach that we chose to maintain our school culture. Our ISA coach, Dina Heisler, took the idea and created the framework and resources to make it possible. In addition to providing materials and documents to start the program, she made the idea tangible by facilitating a connection with Teachers Unite, as well as with staff members at James Baldwin School, making the Fairness Committee an ingrained part of the school community.

Creating student and staff buy-in around the Fairness Committee took time. Both students and teachers work with the committee to address violations of the school’s character principles; core values of leadership, scholarship, and service; or 4 P’s (prepared, polite, punctual, and proactive). The program has supported ten reconciliations in less than three months.

From the reconciliations, we have noticed demonstrations of maturity, leadership and insight from our committee members that have led to meaningful conversations. Although not all reconciliations eliminate the problematic behavior, the value of the discussions and the development of empathy have allowed the committee to serve as a mechanism for distributed counseling. Students have become leaders and conscious members of the school community. Even those brought to Fairness who initially felt uncomfortable with the process, upon reflection have a greater understanding of how their actions impacted the community. We hope to continue to utilize restorative justice practices to not only maintain our school culture, but to also create a generation of empathetic leaders.

The Institute for Health Professions at Cambria Heights is a career and technical education high school that prepares students for college and careers in medicine. Our students will take their learning beyond the classroom by collaboratively solving problems and completing projects based on real world situations. By setting goals, solving problems, and completing challenging projects, students will take college-level classes and earn certification in either Emergency Medical Services or Nurse Assisting before attending two and four-year colleges.

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