Many schools across the country, dissatisfied with traditional discipline models, are seeking alternative systems to improve the school community. One such alternative system, restorative justice, is proving successful. In contrast to traditional suspensions and detentions, restorative practices focus on actively repairing the harm that was done. Conflict is viewed as an opportunity for students to reflect upon the consequences of their actions, develop empathy, and learn how to effectively solve problems. Restorative practices hold students more accountable than situations in which they passively fulfill a punishment. In fact, the program works on keeping students in school while engaging them in positive behavior change. When compared to traditional systems, restorative justice is not only more effective at addressing the true problems on campus, it also builds relationships, creates a better learning environment, and empowers students with problem-solving skills to prevent future problem behavior.
A number of schools in the United States have already begun to implement restorative techniques and are moving away from traditional punishments in favor of the benefits that restorative practices provide. In Mill Valley, both the middle school and the high school have started to introduce restorative practices. When an incident occurs, the offending student participates in a group facilitation process that includes several peers, who have been trained in restorative practices, and a teacher or a staff member. The student must explain what happened, how he or she was involved in the incident, and how he or she affected others in the community. The peer jury asks questions that delve into understanding how or why an event occurred, exposing underlying issues. Together, the students and the offender come up with a restorative plan that addresses the harm that took place and develop a solution that repairs the incident for everyone involved. Restorative plans range from letters of apology, to projects about the effects of bullying, to interactive art on campus, to tutoring sessions. For example, in one case where a student was involved in cyber bullying, the student agreed to a restorative plan that included interviewing students and teachers on campus to learn about the effects of bullying and created a video about the harmful impact that bullying has on the community to be shown in classrooms. The offending student is also required to participate in future restorative cases as a jury member, in a role reversal that makes the student part of the solution. In this way, a student can break out of the role of trouble-maker and take on the role of responsible problem-solver, leading to a new sense of self. This process allows teachers and administrators to better understand students, intervene in underlying problems that might affect student behavior, and allows students to better understand one another. The system encourages inclusion and compassion, and provides better support for students than traditional systems do. Restorative practices advance equity in the community with research showing that restorative practices in school can disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and reduce behavior incidents.
Students who have undergone the process report that the system is better for everyone involved and feel that it holds them more responsible for their actions. They also prefer restorative practices because they do not fall behind in school from missing days due to suspension. Research on restorative justice yields similar results. Studies show that restorative justice decreases suspension rates, improves test scores, and builds a greater sense of community on campus.
The Mill Valley Police Department supports this progressive approach to juvenile justice and is therefore assisting with its implementation in the schools. Members of the department have received training and experience with restorative practices and help carry out the procedure at both the Mill Valley Middle School and at Tamalpais High School. Officers have observed that the process empowers students with problem solving skills and an ability to deal effectively with interpersonal relations. For these reasons, the Police Department will continue to collaborate with the schools to increase and develop the use of this promising system. If you would like to learn more about this program, please contact the MVPD.