Baby Steps Toward Restorative Justice
Illustrator: Julio Salgado
One afternoon last October, I looked up from my notes just in time to see Adolfo push his chest into Abdi’s, then bam—he punched Abdi in the face and Abdi punched back. “Shit,” I thought, “they’re going to be suspended.” Since the beginning of the year, I had been talking to my students about our classroom community and how important it is that everyone be present: When one person is gone, it breaks the circle and makes each of us incomplete. Now, because of our district’s strict no-fighting policy, both boys would be gone for at least two days.
Adolfo and Abdi were in my class of Latina/o and Somali intermediate and early advanced English language learners (ELLs). Many of my students were also in Spanish dual immersion and/or special education classes, so they had no nonacademic electives; in other words, no gym, no art, no music, no alternative ways to express themselves. This was the last class of the day, and many of us were tired and often frustrated.
The year before had been my first year back at the K-8 school in Portland, Oregon, after two years of being a teacher on special assignment. Despite the fact that I had taught ELL at this school for more than 10 years before I left, I felt like a first-year teacher all over again. After two years of writing curriculum and planning professional development, I could talk a good talk about the importance of building community, but I couldn’t remember how to walk the walk, and my classroom was a train wreck. Students would start chatting with each other as soon as they arrived, and I would spend the next 45 minutes trying to get their attention so we could learn. I tried keeping students in for lunch recess the next day, writing referrals, teaching to the few who were listening. Almost every day I ended up sending kids out for time-outs. The majority of my 20 students got F’s for the year; my most common report card comment was “grade does not reflect ability.”
Theory Is Easier than Practice
Ironically, at the same time I was using time-outs as the go-to disciplinary tool in my classroom, in my off hours I was working with the Portland Parent Union fighting the school-to-prison pipeline and other exclusionary practices. The Portland Parent Union is a grassroots parent advocacy group founded by Sheila Warren, an African American woman who struggled with the school district about her own children and grandchildren. The organization primarily supports parents of color and parents of children with special needs in navigating the school system, which often involves pushing back on exclusionary disciplinary practices. We held forums on the school-to-prison pipeline at the teacher union hall, we conducted restorative listening circles between families and teachers, we joined Dignity in Schools’ Solutions Not Suspensions national campaign.
I was functioning in a haze of cognitive dissonance, knowing in my heart that sending kids out was wrong, but telling myself: “This kid is making it impossible for me to teach, so he is the sacrificial lamb for the greater good. At least I’m not having him suspended.”
That summer I attended a workshop, Echoes of the Past, Voices of Today: The American Indian Student Experience. The facilitator spoke of our classrooms as circles; when one child is gone, the circle is broken. I was deeply affected by his words. Although I had probably said similar things to my class, it somehow resonated in a deeper way. I made a commitment to myself and to my kids that I would not be the one who broke our circle.
But there I was, a month into the school year, with a fistfight in my class. “Hey!” I shouted in my deepest, sternest voice. I ran to the back of the room and tugged on elbows and shirts—to no effect. The boys fell onto the ground and rolled behind my desk, throwing and blocking punches, gasping and grunting. I stepped over their squirming feet and tried calling the office, but there was no answer. “Wendy, go down to the office and get someone—don’t worry about a pass!” The student closest to the door rushed out. Finally, the boys bumped my bookshelf one too many times and a ceramic mug fell to the ground and shattered. Abdi, who was on top, jumped up and moved away. They both sat at separate tables breathing hard, looking chagrined. Wendy came back with a male teacher close behind who bellowed, “Come with me—now!” They skulked after him and out the door.
“I’m so sorry that happened,” I said to my wide-eyed and silent class. Adrenaline was pumping through my system. “But, you know, part of the reason it happened is because of the negativity in the room. People were putting each other down and that just makes a negative environment.”
Issa said that that shouldn’t make a difference. People should just feel good about themselves. I told them that I joke with my friends about having a perfect ego—I generally feel pretty good about myself, but even with my perfect ego, I am affected by the people around me and negativity in the air. I said, “Right now, after this fight, I feel very uncomfortable. I feel like a bad teacher because it happened in my room. I don’t know if anyone else is feeling uncomfortable or scared, but I know I am.”
I saw some emphatic nods; others shifted in their seats.
“What’s the big deal?” asked Natalia. “People get in fights all the time.”
“Well, now they will both be gone for a few days—and our community will not be intact. Is everyone OK?”
“Yeah, we’re OK,” they murmured, and the bell rang. It was the end of the day.
I was shaken up as I went to our middle school teachers’ meeting. I told a colleague about the fight and he said, “Good!” My heart fell. When another teacher joked about disciplining with a baseball bat, I jumped down his throat, yelling that violent talk poisons the air. Later he came into my room to apologize. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “That was stupid of me to say. I used to teach in Chicago public schools and I remember how awful it is to have a fight in my room.”
No administrator came to talk to me. A few days later, I got an email from our assistant principal asking for written details of the fight for her records.
Starting with Compliments
As I reflected on the day and how I might turn the experience into something positive for our class community, I thought back through the work I’d done with the Portland Parent Union and wondered how it might be applicable to this situation. And I remembered a story I had read about a South African community that believes that when someone does something bad, it is because they have forgotten about their own goodness and worth. A community member who transgresses is brought to the center of the village, and everyone who knows them surrounds the individual and tells about all the good things they have done in their life. I decided that, after their suspensions, that is how we would welcome the boys back.
The next day we got into a community circle and I explained my thinking: “So, there was a fight in here yesterday. It was upsetting and we need to heal from it. We know that Abdi and Adolfo are good people—they were born good and they are still good, and when they come back we need to remind them of that.” I told my students about the South African community’s approach and explained we were going try it out. First, we would brainstorm all of the good qualities of each of the boys, then we would go around and everyone would give their compliment to an empty chair so students could practice. We started with Abdi.
“He’s like a brother to me,” said Natalia.
“How so?” I asked. “Can you say something specific about what he does to make you feel that way?”
“He listens to me and helps me with my problems.”
“He’s funny,” said Jose.
“He helps me with my work sometimes.”
“He has a great smile.”
After everyone had a chance to say something, we went around the circle again and they directed their comments to Abdi in the empty chair.
“Abdi, you’re like a brother to me. You listen to me and help me solve my problems.”
“Abdi, you’re funny.”
We continued around the circle and then repeated the process for Adolfo.
Facing the Harm
Two days later, it was Friday and only Adolfo had returned to school. Before class, I began to worry that if we just gave compliments, I might be sending the message that if someone is feeling a little fragile all they need to do is something bad, then they will be guaranteed a bunch of compliments. I realized that we needed to make space in our meeting to acknowledge the harm and how each boy could repair it. At recess I talked to a few kids and asked them to describe the harm that resulted from the fight.
“It broke our community circle because they were suspended.”
“It made me scared in class.”
“It interrupted the lesson, so we didn’t learn as much.”
I asked those kids if they would be willing to share their ideas during our circle. I hoped that would get the conversation rolling. I gave Adolfo a heads-up before class that we were going to talk about the fight.
Once we got into our circle, we started the meeting talking about the harm. Besides the students I had already talked to, a few more students shared that they were uncomfortable and one said that property was destroyed.
Adolfo listened closely with his eyes down, nodding. I asked if he had anything to say. “I’m very sorry and will not do anything like that again.”
I then explained to him about the community in South Africa and their philosophy of reminding people of their goodness. I asked for a volunteer to start and we went around the circle.
“Adolfo, you are a good friend.”
“You make me laugh.”
“You have a fresh style.”
After each person gave a compliment, Adolfo looked at them and said “thank you.” When we had gone around the circle, he asked if he could give some compliments. “Sure,” I said. After he appreciated a few people for being his friend or letting him come over to their house, we opened it up and had a big compliment fest, with everyone in the circle getting complimented.
The following Monday Abdi returned and we got into our circle again. “Oh my God, why?” Natalia protested as I told the class to circle up. “It was just a fight. Everyone does it.”
“Well, it is something we need to heal from. It harmed us all and we need to deal with it. Plus we need to give Abdi some love.”
We started with the compliments. Abdi and Adolfo were able to give each other compliments.
“That was stupid of me, man. I’m sorry. You’re a good friend.”
“You too, man.”
We then went on to identify the harm. By then, the reading I had done about restorative justice was seeping back into my brain—I remembered that not only do all the parties come together to identify harm, they also figure out how to repair the harm. “OK, so what can these two young men do now to repair the harm they caused?” The students made a list of actions that the two boys could take:
Be teachers/role models
Sing a song and/or do a dance for the class together
Write a letter
Abdi and Adolfo agreed that they could do all of these things, but were particularly excited about the dance.
About a month after the fight, the boys performed their dance for an enthusiastic and supportive audience. They took turns B-boying with acrobatic moves that they had worked on together. Afterward, I passed out a half sheet of paper with these reflection questions:
After the fight I felt ______ because ______.
Now I feel _________ because ________.
I thought the process in the community meeting was ______ because_____.
Ms. King, I really want you to know ________.
“Are you kidding, Ms. King? It happened forever ago! Are we ever going to stop talking about this?”
“Natalia, I promise: This is the last thing—I just need to find out how everyone felt about the process.”
Many of the responses conveyed that students were uncomfortable, sad, or worried after the fight; now they were happy that the boys were still friends. Students thought the process was good because everyone got a chance to talk. A few of them wrote: Ms. King, I really want you to know we are a community.
I still struggled with this class. A lot of time was wasted with interruptions, cross talk, chatter. But I didn’t send kids out of the class anymore. And instead of the majority of the students getting F’s like the previous year, the majority had C’s or better.
My assistant principal has told me I need to be writing referrals for disruptive behavior. But I don’t think so. Paulo Freire said that teachers need to “live a part of their dreams within their educational space.” Referrals aren’t a part of my dreams. I think we are due for another compliment fest—it shouldn’t take a fight to bring in the love.