On restorative justice, Non-Violence Clubs and school discipline

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Douglass Non-Violence Club: Cody, Devin, Michelle, Dennis, and Gina (not in picture Nyiaesha Colon, Club President and Gandhi Institute intern) Photo: David Kramer

• July 25, 2015

Yesterday we read about a draft code of conduct read about a draft code of conduct for RCSD students designed to reduce dramatically the reliance on suspensions.

The emphasis in the blueprint on a “matrix of restorative practices” was particularly interesting. Just Wednesday, Superintendent Bolgen Vargas and RTA President Bolgen Vargas visited the White House to discuss restorative practices and school discipline.

Restorative justice is a multi-faceted concept that at its core is based on respect, responsibility, relationship-building and relationship-repairing by focusing on mediation and agreement rather than punishment. Essentially, restorative practices encourage students to propose meaningful reparations for their wrongdoing while challenging them to forge empathy, for example, through “talking circles” facilitated by other students or adults.

My own knowledge of restorative practices in the RCSD is anecdotal and limited but I have seen success. A few year ago at the Wilson Foundation Academy. I watched restorative justice in action in the In School Suspension Room run by teacher Robin Lavergne. There, George Payne of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence facilitated the Wilson Nonviolence Education and Empowerments Program, showing students that while conflict and strife are inevitable through open-minded, authentic conversation, alternative to social harm are possible.

Gandhi Institute reaches out to city school students

In another example, at the LyncX Academy, I saw students independently practicing restorative or non-violent behavior. One girl helped teach the class deep breathing exercises she had learned in anger management counseling. A group of six girls took it upon themselves to organize their own “peace circle,” each sharing a concern and advice.

Getting back in synch at LyncX Academy

Perhaps most promising are school-based nonviolence clubs at Douglass and Wilson Magnet supported by the Gandhi Institute. These clubs provide a forum for young people to honestly discuss overt uses of violence, as well as every day experiences like bullying, intolerance and incivility. When I attended, students talked openly about cafeteria melees and out of school “knockout games.”

Douglass and Wilson students flocking to Non-Violent Clubs supported by the Gandhi Institute

At the same time, my positive feelings are tempered by realism. One sad event I won’t forget. On February 10, 2014, I had posted on that Non-Violent Club at Douglass, describing the student driven clubs seeking to counter the culture of violence too often plaguing city schools. The very next day I awoke to read that the Douglass campus was on lockdown for the second half of the school day following several fights which led to Rochester police officers using pepper spray. The irony was painful. “Officers needed pepper spray for school fights”

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February 10, 2014 at the Douglass Campus, (D & C)

Later I would hear the fights were much worse than reported. Some teachers were frightened enough to hide under desks. Recently I talked with a substitute teacher who happened to be at Douglass when the violence occurred.

She too won’t forget that day.  My friend wishes she didn’t feel RCSD schools were not safe enough for her daughter, who she sent instead to a private school. My friend recalled going home that evening and just hugging her daughter and telling her how thankful she was that she was all right.  The next day she decided not to return to Douglass for another assignment.

Ultimately, I support the proposed code of conduct as a step in the right direction. We have to look beyond pepper spray incidents and move forward. And restorative justice is one way. For starters, how about a Non-Violent Club in every school. Contact Kit Miller, Director of the M.K. Gandhi Institute at the University of Rochester, to learn how your school can form its own.

BELOW IS A DIFFERENT VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN THE CITY

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