When you think about public health what comes to mind?
Maybe it is a hospital, or doctors. Maybe it has to do with medicine, policy or maybe even environmental sustainability. For me, it’s restorative justice (RJ).
Many people tend to think about public health in terms of physical or environmental factors, but often forget that health is also significantly impacted by whether an individual possesses or lacks social connectedness, or, what some consider, social capital. Think about it, at what point in your life have you felt at your best or happiest? Chances are, it was not at a moment when you were engaged with others rather than isolated.
Numerous studies have shown that social connectedness plays a huge role in physical, mental, and emotional well-being. A study in the American Association for the Advancement of Science demonstrated that lack of social connectedness contributes more to poor health than high blood pressure, or even smoking. Lack of connectedness also causes anxiety, depression and antisocial behavior, and it increases crime. One study found, “Social connectedness considerably reduces murders, rapes, robberies, assaults, burglaries, and motor vehicle thefts…. Social connectedness especially reduces murders of adolescents and young adults during gang and drug activity.”
Unfortunately, an article in Stanford Medicine suggests that, “Social connectedness is waning at an alarming rate in the US…the modal number of close others Americans claimed to have in 1985 was only three. In 2004 it dropped to zero…suggest[ing] that one in four people we meet may have no one they call a close friend!” Yikes!
But what’s restorative justice have to do with it?
Originating in indigenous communities, RJ believes when a crime occurs, the social fabric of a community is torn. Thus, it seeks to repair the fabric by increasing social connectedness. One way it does this is through community conferencing, a circle-based process in which stakeholders (community members, victim/survivor(s), and offender(s)) discuss what happened, how it affected them, and assemble a repair agreement for the offender(s) to complete. Community conferencing allows stakeholders to be heard, victims to be supported, offender(s) to be encouraged to take adequate responsibility for their actions.
While RJ has been regarded by some as a reactive approach to crime, it is increasingly understood as a component of restorative practices which seek to build resilient communities. Practices also include community-building circles which provide a space for communities to forge relationships and address mutual concerns.
One organization implementing these strategies to reduce crime and increase public health is the Restorative Justice Project. RJP has successfully been engaged in community conferencing since 2005.
I arrived at RJP as a new intern a few weeks ago. As a Grinnell College student from Kansas, I only had a vague understanding of RJ. At Grinnell, I volunteer as a sexual assault advocate and teach incarcerated men at a correctional facility largely populated by sex offenders. In these roles, I became increasingly frustrated with the isolation the people I work with experience. I found it increasingly hard to cope with the idea that punishment, especially severe punishment, is an effective response to harm. I witnessed this approach isolate sexual assault victims who did not want to pursue the criminal justice system in response to harm, and I witnessed the physical and mental isolation of those who have harmed, stifle their ability to be held truly accountable and be seen as holistic human beings.
So, even though I was, frankly, still skeptical of RJ, I took a leap of faith and made my way to Maine.
In just a short time, I have found RJ to be powerful and effective. It has changed my life, and I look forward to working more with RJP towards a more socially connected future.
If we need to have strong social connections to reduce crime and increase health, and RJ succeeds in forging connectedness, it seems natural that we should support RJ in our communities.
Cinthia Romo, is a summer 2019 intern at RJP. A permanent resident of Kansas City, Kansas and third year student at Grinnell College in Iowa, Cinthia was drawn to restorative justice and RJP through her volunteer teaching job at the Newton Correctional Facility in Newton, IA. She is a Sociology and French double major who aspires to obtain a PhD in Sociology and become a professor. Furthermore, with the help of her college advisors and RJP staff, she is currently working as a Mellon Mays Fellow grantee to research restorative justice practices. Her experiences throughout high school and college have fueled her thirst for social justice and change, and she hopes to incorporate her experiences at RJP and restorative practices into her future career.
“Thank you for not giving up on us.”
Those eight simple words from an Oceanside High School student to the Assistant Principal upon graduation sum up the positive impact that can result when a school embraces the massive, complex, demanding effort of creating a restorative school environment.
OHS has completed three of their planned five years of working with the Restorative Justice Project to implement Restorative School Approaches. By the end of this past school year, a shift in culture was palpable across a number of significant elements of the school community, from students to staff and administration to parents/guardians.
The faculty survey done in May 2019 showed a significant positive change in how staff described the school climate. When asked to reflect on the previous school year versus the current one on a 5-point scale ranging from Poor to Very Positive, positive and very positive ratings increased from 45% for the 2017-2018 school year to 73% for 2018-2019, an increase of 62%.
In our final OHS Restorative Practices Team meeting on June 19th, team members reflected on positive changes across the two school years that they had experienced and observed in the school community that may have driven this change in teachers’ perceptions of the climate. Main points included:
The RP Team is using this qualitative reflection in combination with quantitative data collected throughout the school year on behavioral referrals and interventions to develop objectives for further strengthening OHS’s restorative approaches, and addressing areas in need of change in the coming school year.
What is a Restorative School?
A personal perspective...
As is so often the case with program design where human behavioral change is the goal, determining cause and effect can be challenging, perhaps especially so with students who have multiple forces outside of the school environment that affect their lives, decision-making and well-being. Quantitative measures typically used in restorative school efforts include such standards as suspensions, school achievement and graduation rates, which can often take several years to construct a meaningful picture. For more immediate data, schools in Maine and other states continue to rely heavily on qualitative (such as the school climate question) and process data (such as tracking whether certain restorative practices occurred) to determine progress. Yet, the quality of how restorative practices are being implemented in a school remains a difficult thing to assess and communicate. “How do we know it’s working?” can be maddeningly difficult to answer.
As I complete nearly two years as the Restorative Practices Coordinator for RSU 13, I offer my own personal reflection – measurement, if you will – of what a restorative school is, or at least feels like. We each have a primal internal compass monitoring whether we are in a restorative (safe) or punitive environment (potential danger lurking around every corner) at any given moment. When I began this work in 2017, it had been 35 years since I’d set foot in a public school building in any meaningful capacity. That first day, I was astonished at how my heart rate shot up upon walking in the door, along with other symptoms of old anxieties surfacing. Clearly, I had not had a restorative school experience in my youth, to the point that the fight-or-flight response was still so easily triggered after so long.
From my experiences with RSU 13, I propose that you will know by some key factors you have stepped into a school well on its evolutionary path towards a restorative environment the minute you walk into the building or spend just a little time in the halls, in meetings:
While schools and the school system have a well-earned reputation as institutions highly resistant to change, this cultural shift can happen. It takes will on the part of leadership and staff – I would argue that students already want such a change. It takes diligent, careful planning; the rearrangement and possibly addition of staff and financial resources; it takes communication; it takes commitment to all of the above to sustain; and, especially, it takes time.
But then again, so does raising a healthy, confident child ready to enter the adult world.
LD 1397, An Act Regarding the Admissibility of Certain Statements of Juveniles, Approved by Gov. Mills!
On June 6th 2019, Gov. Mills approved LD 1397, An Act Regarding The Admissibility Of Certain Statements of Juveniles, into law. This legislation defines that in the event a youth is not successful with the Restorative Justice process, and the case goes to trial, no participant from the RJ process can be called to testify against them.
This is a big win for RJ because it is the first definition of Restorative Justice in the juvenile code.
Click on the button below to view the bill!
Task force created to help transform juvenile justice in Maine...
Bill seeks to reduce state reliance on Long Creek Youth Development Center...
Juvenile justice group convenes with mission of reform...
It's time to shift away from incarcerating young offenders at Long Creek...
Saturday, June 4th, was Bath Safety Day! RJP decided to forego the normal 'info table' and go with a circle of fold up white chairs and center piece. There was plenty of sidewalk chalk and RJP asked two questions folks could answer either by drawing or sitting in the circle and talking with whomever is in circle at the time!
The questions we asked were 1) When do you feel like you most belong in a community or group of people? 2) When you make mistakes, what do you need most?
THANK YOU to our amazing volunteers and the lovely Bath community for taking such interest and getting involved by exploring these questions in circle! 🧡
Pictured below are our loyal volunteers, Gabe Smith, along with his sweet family, RJP board member and longtime mentors Aaron and Bill.
On May 31st and June 1st, RJPs youth and adult conferencing coordinators, Sarah and Karin, welcomed enthusiastic folks from all over coastal Maine, from Wells to Ellsworth, to the Restorative Justice Project's facilitator training at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Belfast.
Restorative Justice Conferencing is a facilitated intervention that addresses serious misbehaviors or harmful incidents in a community setting. Addressing the questions of what happened, who was affected and how, all parties work together to determine an agreement for how to make things as right as possible. This two day training, provided opportunities for attendees to gain a greater understanding of Restorative Justice, with a specific focus on facilitating the RJ conference process, from preparation to RJ process to follow up.
This was RJPs first facilitator training of 2019 and it was beyond successful!
Please join RJP in welcoming our new volunteer facilitators into the Community Resolution Program!
Completely blown away by our community; the generosity and support for the Restorative Justice Project is so heartwarming and encouraging. The money raised by Co-Op shoppers in the month of May, through the Common Cents program, will be put towards excellent use in promoting fundamental change in our justice system and our schools. Thank you to the Belfast Co-Op, its staff and its loyal shoppers for this amazing gift.
Restorative School Practices; Time is a Worthy Investment. BY CARLA P. WHITE, RESTORATIVE PRACTICES COORDINATOR, RSU 13
"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."
Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring
As teachers wrestle with classroom management, with the root causes of disruption often stemming from life circumstances many students face that are beyond anything a teacher or school can change, restorative practices (RP) can go a long way toward creating a healthier, more productive and enjoyable classroom environment and school community for everyone.
Time is typically the number one challenge identified by teachers and other school staff in using consistent RP in their classrooms and in working one-on-one with students. Class periods often feel too short to hold substantive community-building circles, exacerbated in those settings where students must travel from one end of the building to the other when changing rooms.
However, those teachers who do make the time report improved classroom dynamics; decreased behavioral disruptions; and improved relationships among students and with teachers due to improved communication, respect and self confidence in students. In addition, teachers have expressed to me that, contrary to eating into academic time, holding regular robust classroom circles seems to result in traditional academic sessions being more productive, with students more engaged.
The following experience recently shared with me by one high school teacher illustrates the positive results of investing time and energy in RP.
My class of eight freshmen and sophomores was disruptive to the point that I could not carry out a 20-minute lesson with them. I had to quit doing group challenges because they could not be trusted to not throw or hit each other with objects used. If a student was not noisily disruptive, she/he sat in disgust at others’ behaviors, rolling eyes and not participating.
I met with students one on one and talked about each person’s responsibility in the fallout of class. I helped them notice their part as it relates to a whole. It was in the next class after these individual meetings that I implemented restorative circles.
The first two classes, I threw our regular Student Leader routine out the window and focused only on restoring our very cool class. I changed the seating arrangement. We sat at tables arranged so could see one another – not yet in face to face circle. I wanted them to have the safety of “hiding” behind the tables to begin the conversations we needed to have.
In that first class we watched some videos our RP Coordinator had recommended on restorative circles to get all students on the same page. Our first topic was admitting our responsibility in disrupting the group. I made a list of all that came up.
We couldn’t have a talking piece for the first two sessions. The following class, we revisited the list we had made and identified common themes: boredom, making noises, very easily distracted, wanting everyone to shut up and not disrupt. I asked them to pass around a poster to write suggestions for class rules/expectations. Each student had a different color and when the group decided on an expectation, they took turns scribing.
In the third class, we held a face-to-face circle with a talking piece. The topic, again, was taking responsibility for actions, suggestions for strengthening that, and how can we all support each other to keep distractions down.
The fourth class we again had a face-to face circle. The topic was a review of expectations and willingness to notice behaviors.
Then we started talking about everything and nothing. The topics ebbed and flowed from one thing to another with students listening and relating to one another as opposed to talking over and reacting to one another.
We now begin each class with a 5-10 minute debriefing conversation about school, home or whatever the student needs to say.
We begin each class with 2 minutes of mindfulness.
– Jane-Ann, JMG Specialist, Oceanside High School, RSU 13
As one middle school teacher – whose excellent circles I have had the pleasure of witnessing – stated, “My students need to learn how to communicate and treat each other well as much as they need to learn Spanish and French.” Another teacher, hoping to cancel his Monday circle in order to catch up on work after being away at a conference, said his 8th grade class would not hear of it and insisted they hold their circle as usual.
Social and emotional development in young people is critical to their life trajectories. The community they spend most of their waking hours in nine months of the year has a massive impact on that development. Spending half an hour at least a couple times a week for students to talk about whatever they need to in a safe, nonjudgmental setting with their peers goes a long way toward building a community that will help them step onto a positive path. Worth the investment and you might find that it helps, rather than takes away from, the reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.