SPRINGFIELD, Vt. — Springfield High School Instructional Coaches Liz Coen and Michael Ruppel met with the Springfield School Board this week to discuss their first year of progress toward developing a restorative justice program in Springfield High School, which they hope in years to come will reduce behavioral problems, absenteeism, and suspension, while building a healthier and productive community within the school.
Coen, an 11-year district employee who discovered the restorative justice model during a training experience about five years ago, described restorative justice as a community-centered approach to resolving conflicts and detrimental behaviors, whose message to students shifts from “we’re suspending you” to “how do we repair the harm and keep you here?”
The essential questions in traditional forms of discipline often ask “what rule was broken,” “who’s responsible,” and “what is the consequence?” None of these, Coen and Ruppel point out, engage the offending student’s attention to who was harmed or how to amend it. Whereas school suspension isolates the student from the community, bringing the student into a community circle to process the incident builds empathy, awareness of others’ perspectives, ownership and holds parties responsible to amend the harm they caused.
School board members said they wanted to find more effective approaches to addressing student behaviors than relying too much on out-of-school suspensions, which for many students fails to improve future behavior and contributes to more absenteeism.
“You start kicking kids out of school [and then] the higher their likelihood to not graduate and their problems with the police and criminal justice system go way up,” said school board member Mike Griffin.“If the issue is non-safety related, we should have a way to keep them in the school and keep their education happening.”
Restorative justice does not exempt offending students from consequences, and many times students may still be suspended, Coen said. But it is an ideal process for students looking to return to the school community after serving a suspension.
“The message of restorative justice to the student is that a relationship has been harmed. We want him or her to be here as part of the community, [so] how do we keep the student here,” Coen said.
Ruppel said that creating a restorative justice program within a school is an ongoing process that take several years. Students, faculty and staff need to complete training in order to learn how to communicate and conduct peer and community circles for resolving conflicts and issues. In addition, school members need to cultivate strong relationships with one another to create a community that everyone will want to invest in and “own” responsibility to maintain that community.
In October faculty participated in a three-hour restorative justice training for professional development, and about 10 staff members went through an additional all-day training program, Ruppel said. On Monday Ruppel and Coen conducted a training with 25 students.
During the year advisors held community-building circles with their advisory students to develop students familiarity and comfort with communicating in circle forums. Typical conversations according to Ruppel were topics like what students found difficult about being a teenager or what they find essential to being successful in school.
Next year Ruppel and Coen want to extend the three-hour training delivered in October to all school staff and train more students in peer and group mediation.
“[The focus at present] is on the way we should communicate day to day and building that moral center as a district for how to respect each other,” Griffin said. “From there we can roll that into the pieces involving discipline and returning students to the school community.”