By Crystal Davis, school counselor at the Institute for Health Professions at Cambria Heights

Students participate in Restorative Justice workshopAt the Institute for Health Professions at Cambria Heights (IHPCH), we place great emphasis on leadership. Our approach to leadership is summed up on our website: “We believe that leaders are made, not born. Leadership requires us to empower the people around us to achieve their best.” As the school counselor for IHPCH, I work with students on leadership development every day.  

At IHPCH, we use the ISA Restorative Justice Model where our students serve on Fairness Committees that bring students together to look at violations to community norms and provide the space and opportunity for dialogue. This is a very hands-on approach to handling conflict in our school, which is now in its second year. This year we set up our Fairness Committee as a random jury pool with all students in the school having the potential to participate, mimicking the responsibility of adult citizens.  This allowed us to train all students on fairness and is a great way for students who would normally not get involved to do so. At the end of the year, we will evaluate the random jury pool approach to see how students respond to certain situations and to see if it helps shape how students make decisions.

As part of our restorative justice model, both parties get to speak uninterrupted. We focus on a non-punitive approach that provides the space for everyone to talk to figure out what harm has been done. Then the committee decides on the consequences. These consequences include community service, making a presentation, etc. and focus on repairing the harm done. In our program, students can bring other students in front of the Fairness Committee, as well as staff members, and vice versa.

As part of our restorative justice training, we provide students opportunities to handle an array of issues such as bullying, cheating, and class disruption. When we talk about a topic, students pull situation cards to discuss how the listed situation could escalate a conflict.  For example if a student is teasing another student in class, they discuss questions such as, “How would they handle the situation?”, “What can happen next?”, or “How can your friends help?”

Our restorative justice system has been so effective that on October 22, 2014, we hosted a Restorative Justice Training Workshop with eight ninth grade students from a sister ISA school, the newly opened Innovation High School in Jersey City, New Jersey. The workshop allowed Innovation High School students to see how our system works and how to implement it successfully in their own school.

Innovation High School students discussed how they related to the fact that we were in their shoes last year – a brand new school trying to get a restorative justice system up and running. During the workshop, Innovation High School students got to see our Fairness Committees in action as student mentors lead students through various conflicts. After observing a half-day workshop and follow up discussions with ISA coach, Dina Heisler, Innovation High School students demonstrated their ability to train other students.

One particular training tactic we shared with Innovation High School students was role-playing through skits where students act out a conflict. In one scenario, a student needs to go to the bathroom during class and the teacher tells the student to wait. The student is disruptive because he or she did not appreciate waiting and was disrespectful to the teacher. For this training, two students played the teacher and student roles and then they went before the Fairness Committee. The class then brainstormed important questions to ask of the students, including, “How can the harm be repaired?” The focus was always on expressing oneself clearly and discussing how the two parties can resolve their conflict. After talking about this particular situation, we then debriefed about best practices, next steps, and how Innovation High School students could build a school culture around restorative justice practices.

After the success of the workshop with Innovation High School, we hosted a second workshop with another ISA school, Hillside Arts and Letters Academy on November 24, 2014. They not only participated in the same workshop, but also had the opportunity to participate in an actual Fairness Committee Hearing.

In order to implement a restorative justice system at a school, it is extremely important to have everyone at the school on board with the idea. While it is easier to send a student to detention, this does not always solve the issue. By allowing students to discuss and work through a conflict in a non-judgmental environment, students have the opportunity to tell their side of the story, understand why an individual behaved in a particular manner, and work to make the situation right. Through our restorative justice system, we build empathy among our students and make our school feel more like a community. It takes a great deal of dedication, but it pays off in the end.