New Haven schools address behavior problems with restorative justice practices

Peer mediation, conflict resolution coaching teach students skills for life

Credit: New Haven Community Schools

This essay was written for Education Station, WDIV Local 4/ClickOnDetroit.com's home for school-related issues and discussions. Do you have a contribution for Education Station? Email us at: clickondetroit@wdiv.com

School districts in Michigan opened their doors this fall and greeted students with a different focus on how administrators address discipline. Certainly, many will agree the time has come when we need to take a more positive and productive approach to how we deal with student conflict resolution in our schools.  Michigan legislators saw it that way too when it passed Public Acts 360-366 in late 2016. The new law became effective Aug. 1 and ends mandatory expulsions with the exception of possession of firearms.

Of primary interest in the legislation is that school districts have a mandate to consider using restorative practices as an alternative or in addition to suspension or expulsion. Accordingly, restorative practices should be the first consideration to remediate offenses such as interpersonal conflict, bullying, verbal and physical conflict, theft, damage to property, class disruption, and harassment and cyberbullying. 

Some may look at the new law as a burdensome interference of school student management. Others who have experienced the practice view it as an encouragement for the use of alternative means of dealing with student misbehavior and conduct. Such is the case in the New Haven Community Schools.

The philosophy of restorative justice in our schools is that when a student does harm, it has an effect not only on the victim, but also on the school community and the person who caused the harm. The restorative process works to repair that harm by giving the person who caused the harm an opportunity to make peace with both the victim and the encompassing school community.

These restorative processes, which are founded on centuries of peacemaking systems in indigenous cultures, are now being acknowledged for their transformative powers in addressing school climate and behavioral issues. More and more schools in the United States and elsewhere in the world have successfully adopted restorative justice practices.

Restorative practices can turn the process of dealing with behavioral problems into a learning opportunity.  Restorative justice models address those who were harmed, those who did harm, and the entire extended community affected.  It allows everyone involved to come to a personal understanding as well as an agreement about the harm done and future behavior.  With restorative justice processes, more people are involved in building strong, lasting relationships among students, faculty, staff and families.

When long-used punitive sanctions are supplemented or even replaced with restorative conferencing, peer mediation, peacemaking circles and conflict resolution coaching, positive change can be realized. A long-term advantage is that the student learns skills that can be used for a lifetime.

New Haven Community Schools adopted restorative practices for its high school very early in 2012. With a vision for the future and realizing the positive affect of the processes, the district expanded the program to include the middle school in the fall of 2016. With restorative justice coordinating services provided by The Resolution Center in Mt. Clemens, the district maintains an Office of Student Conflict Resolution that works closely with school administrators.

David Gillis is the Restorative Practices Coordinator, New Haven Community Schools.