By Steve Lesniak
Restorative justice is a relatively new term being used in school settings across the country. Call it what you want, but simply put, it is good practice. Before I touch on how I use restorative justice in my classroom, it is important to understand how it connects to Senate Bill 100, passed by the Illinois General Assembly in 2015 and put into place for the 2016-17 school year. SB 100 essentially prevents schools from issuing discipline to students without documentation of interventions along the way. While this may not be much of a change for many school districts, there is another component of SB 100 that has had a more visible impact on schools. Unless students put themselves or others in harms way, it is extremely difficult to issue an out-of-school suspension to a student. As I take time to reflect on SB 100, I see how restorative justice complements its goals very well. Ultimately, if a student is cutting class, the idea is not to issue an out-of-school suspension. The logic just doesn’t make sense. “You’ve been cutting class, so we are going to punish you by not allowing you to go to class.” Doesn’t this just give the student what they want anyway? Restorative justice forces that student to stay in school and make up the work he or she missed in class. More importantly, if utilized correctly, restorative justice will change student behavior.
In my classroom, like many classrooms, there are students who are lacking motivation or can be a distraction to themselves and their peers. In the past, many teachers, including myself, would have simply dismissed the student and sent them to the dean. While this might seem like a quick fix, it really creates more headaches for teachers. Now, that student has missed the lesson for the day and certainly won’t master any objectives set forth. How can we utilize restorative justice in the classroom? First, it is important to build a relationship with students. Many students who act out have often been met with scolding and ridicule by adults. While it is sometimes necessary to discipline students, it is also imperative that students know that teachers care about them. Many of our most troubled students have been beaten down by the education system, and they might have bigger issues going on at home. Establishing a relationship and showing students that they are in a safe and caring environment will help them to trust that we have their best intentions at heart. Once that relationship is established, I like to redirect students’ disruptive behavior to questions pertaining to our lesson. When a student acts out in my World History class, I immediately ask that student, or the entire class, how the people living during the time period we are studying would have handled the situation. For example, right now we are discussing Absolutism and the Divine Right of Kings. A student in my class was talking while we were going over a quiz. I asked the class to share how an absolute ruler might handle the situation of a student showing flagrant disrespect. It sparked great discussion and was a great segue into our discussion on the Enlightenment.
While many classes do not have a way to relate their content to disruptive behavior, there are still ways to talk to students and have them assess their own behavior. Kicking students out of class without following up shows them that we don’t care about their education. Problem solving and taking time to talk with students is a better way to establish that positive relationship. Equally as important, it teaches students how to improve their behavior and performance in school. Some may call this restorative justice, while others may just call it good practice.