Students in Tatiana Chaterji's class gather in a restorative justice circle around a centerpiece with community agreements (Courtesy of Tatiana Chaterji)
When it was time to return to school in person for her junior year, Kimberly Higareda was resistant. She had gotten used to being at home, multitasking while attending her Zoom classes and having time to cook for herself in the middle of the day. On top of all of that, the masks they had to wear at school gave her acne.
“When it was time to come back and do it all over again, I wanted to quit school,” she says.
Higareda was a freshman at Fremont High School in Oakland when the pandemic closed her school building. She felt isolated during distance learning and, like so many people, was struggling with her relationships with peers and family. But she found help through online restorative justice (RJ) circles offered through school.
“I brought my all to circles. It was so powerful because I didn’t have any other space to express it in,” says Higareda.
Providing outlets through school was especially needed at the start of the 2021 school year because the pandemic had deepened inequities and led to more poverty in Oakland. “There have been challenges where violence in the community will make its way into the school,” says David Yusem, the RJ coordinator for Higareda’s district. “There’s been an increase in behavioral issues in the schools. There have been challenges with attendance.”
Solutions for behavior issues
Disrupted routines and trouble connecting to peers or teachers during the coronavirus lockdown and its aftermath has led to frayed relationships with school for many students.
Studies show there have been more incidents of violence against teachers. An American Psychological Association (APA) survey of nearly 15,000 school staff shows almost 60% of teachers feel victimized in some way at work.
Experts on the APA task force that conducted the study recommended improving teacher education programs so that there is more focus on managing student behavior, in addition to providing social emotional learning training for all school staff. The task force also backed the Comprehensive Mental Health In Schools Pilot Program Act which supports restorative justice as a social emotional learning technique to strengthen relationships between students, teachers and school leaders. But as can often be the case with recommendations – whether through lack of funding, will or support, for example – schools fall short.
“We have seen behaviors at a level that we’ve never experienced before at my high school,” Marta Schaffer, an English teacher in Oroville, California, told me earlier this year. “There’s been fighting pretty much every week, aggression towards staff and teachers and fighting happening in classrooms.”
Schaffer says there are four social workers to meet with students at the three schools in her district and no restorative justice programs. With limited mental health resources, student behavior during the first year in person after pandemic distance learning had been erratic and unpredictable.
What is restorative justice?
Restorative justice (RJ) programs are small talking groups called circles – because of how people are seated around one another – used to build community and respond to conflict. One person speaks at a time and everybody gets a chance to speak or pass.
RJ circles are composed of three tiers: Tier one circles focus on building and maintaining community; they are meant to build relationships, so that conflict is less likely to happen. When a conflict arises, a tier two circle is done to address and repair harm. Tier three circles provide individualized support for someone coming back into the community. “It could be a student, teacher, or someone coming in from being incarcerated. We want to identify what they need to be successful and help them get that,” says Yusem.
OUSD has had RJ since 2007 and in 2017, they invested $2.5 million in their RJ programs. Yusem works with facilitators based in middle schools and high schools across the district. He says the facilitator’s goal is to “create an environment where teaching and learning can happen, where it feels safe, welcoming, where social and emotional learning can take place and students can begin to access the part of their brain they need to learn.”
OUSD had built a strong foundation with restorative justice practices when the pandemic forced students and teachers into lockdown. They continued to do RJ circles online to support students. “We would do circles for people impacted by COVID,” says Yusem. “They were for people who either got sick themselves or had to take care of a loved one or lost a loved one.”
Restorative justice in the classroom
When students returned in person, Tatiana Chaterji, the RJ facilitator at Kimberly Higareda’s school, had to do a lot of work to help students feel comfortable around each other again. In OUSD, all ninth graders are required to take her RJ leadership class at least once. “RJ is all about relationships, and I think relationships have been weaker,” says Chaterji about her students. Because students haven’t seen each other in a while, some conflicts have been festering for years and may have gotten worse because of social media.
“My day-to-day looks like a lot of training, teaching and introducing empathy,” says Chaterji. “Trauma, neglect, youth, social media, ego and all the sort of negative forces that encourage us to be so self-centered take us away from caring about others.”
RJ helped Higareda keep in touch with her peers during distance learning. While her online classes were “dead silent,” people talked during online RJ circles even if they kept their videos off. “I definitely think it helped me because I knew names and I knew voices. Without that, I wouldn’t have known anyone,” says Higareda. Even though she kept in contact with some peers through online RJ circles, Higareda says her in-person relationships with classmates were strained.
For instance, in her RJ leadership class, there was tension between upperclassmen and underclassmen. Higareda and other juniors felt the younger students were not pulling their weight on projects and activities. “We were friends with each other and not them,” says Higareda. “At moments we yelled at each other. I saw a couple of people yelling at each other really bad words and comments,” she says. The class did a tier two circle to deal with the conflict.
Higareda is the oldest in her household, so when it was her turn to speak she told her classmates that she was tired of being a leader all the time; she wanted others to take initiative and contribute to the class community.
“That circle opened up this space for us to talk and voice our opinions and it was great after. We all learned something new,” says Higareda. After the circle cleared things up, students who weren’t on speaking terms earlier in the year were following each other on social media and hanging out outside of class.
“We’re all going through so much,” says Kimberly. “I’ve done so many circles where people actually get more vulnerable and I see them for something more than they express to be.”
“The science behind restorative justice practices within school settings has kind of lagged,” says Martinez. Without research and numbers to back up RJ’s success, it’s hard to push for funding RJ programs at schools.
Even still, Martinez sees similarities between how teachers used RJ circles to navigate the community violence in New York public schools and how RJ is being used to address poverty, loss and inequity after the pandemic. “It created a space to hear about a lot of concerning things happening in the lives of children,” says Martinez.
He recommends that RJ is part of an ecosystem of care at a school. Once caring adults know what students are going through, they can give them referrals to additional support like psychologists, social workers and counselors.
“RJ is not the cure. It’s not going to fully address trauma, but it’s the space to begin to start to listen,” says Martinez.
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