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!