“Our goal at Alternative High School (AHS) is to create a culture of caring, a place where everyone feels welcomed, supported and safe,” said Program Supervisor Adam Porter. The school has already come a long way towards achieving that aim, and this year, staff and students have a new tool: restorative justice.
“Our kids often have to deal with difficult social and emotional stressors related to obstacles outside of school,” said Porter. “One of our goals is to help students build their capacity to manage these stressors in a more socially acceptable way. Restorative justice can help us achieve this. It is an approach to dealing with problematic behavior that focuses on building relationships and repairing harm, rather than simply punishing students.”
This summer, Porter, along with AHS math teacher Chris Kneller and social workers Elissa Viele and Lee Palmer, participated in intensive training on restorative justice. Individual training for all AHS teachers and staff will be introduced in the fall; capacity will then build slowly and thoughtfully, evolving to the school’s specific needs. Over the next two years, restorative justice will be embedded in the school culture. “It will become a staple of the Alternative High School program,” said Porter.
Restorative justice is, in some ways, a more systematic approach to methods teachers and staff already use at AHS. It is based on trust and on creating a community. It also provides a consistent process for interventions. Negative actions still have consequences; in fact, students are held accountable to their peers and to the educational community. Instead of immediately being disciplined or suspended, students will explore how their actions have affected the school community. They must find ways to make things right. Restorative justice flips the traditional model of reacting to challenging student behavior, to understanding why the behavior happened and building skills to help prevent it from happening again.
Healing or mediation circles are century-old tools of conflict resolution and an integral part of the practice of restorative justice. A circle brings opposing parties together, along with a neutral facilitator and sometimes other concerned school community members. It offers a safe platform for students to share thoughts and feelings. Circles encourage respectful dialogue and understanding in order to find mutually agreeable solutions.
At Alternative High School, said Porter, “our job as educators goes far beyond teaching academics. We teach our kids how to have healthy social and emotional lives; how to respect others and build their own capacity to solve conflicts. Each of our kids is important, a trusted member of our community. What they learn here will help them lead happy and productive lives long past high school.”