As classroom behavior problems escalate, restorative justice offers solutions

Studies show there have been More incidents of violence against teachers. An American Psychological Association (APA) survey of nearly 15,000 school workers found that nearly 60% of teachers feel victimized in some way at work.

The APA task force experts who conducted the study recommended improvements in teacher education programs that include providing social-emotional education training for all school staff as well as focusing more on student behavior management. The task force also provided support Comprehensive Mental Health in Schools Pilot Program Act which advocates restorative justice as a socioemotional learning strategy to strengthen relationships between students, teachers, and school leaders. But as is often the case with recommendations – whether due to lack of funding, will or support, for example – schools fall short.


“We saw a level of behavior that we had never experienced before at my high school,” Marta Shaffer, an English teacher in Oroville, California, told me earlier this year. “There have been fights almost every week, aggression towards staff and teachers and fights in the classroom.”

Schaefer said the three schools in her district have four social workers to meet with students and no restorative justice programs. With limited mental health resources, student behavior was erratic and unpredictable in the first year after the pandemic distance learning.

What is restorative justice?

Restorative justice (RJ) programs are small talking groups called circles—because of how people sit around each other—used to build community and respond to conflict. One person speaks at a time and everyone gets a chance to speak or pass.

RJ circles consist of three levels: Tier one circles focus on building and maintaining community; They are meant to build rapport, so that conflict is less likely. When a conflict occurs, a level two circle is created to resolve and repair the damage. Three tiers of circles provide individualized support for returning to the community. “It can come from a student, teacher or anyone From the prisoner. We want to identify what they need to be successful and help them get it,” says Usem.

Three Levels of Restorative Justice (Courtesy of OUSD)

OUSD has had RJ since 2007 and inside In 2017, they invested $2.5 million in their RJ programs. Usem works with middle school and high school based facilitators throughout the district. She says that the facilitator’s goal is to “create an environment where teaching and learning can happen, where it feels safe, welcoming, where social and emotional learning can take place, and where students can begin to access the part of their brain that they need to learn.” can.”

OUSD built a strong foundation with restorative justice practices when the pandemic forced students and teachers into lockdown. They continue to form RJ circles online to support students. “We will circle for people affected by COVID,” said Usem “These were for people who either got sick themselves or had to care for a loved one or lost a loved one.”

Restorative justice in the classroom

When the students came back in person, Tatiana Chatterjee, the RJ facilitator at Kimberly Higgerether School, had to do a lot of work to get the students comfortable around each other again. At OUSD, all ninth graders are required to take his RJ leadership class at least once. “RJ is all about relationships, and I think relationships have weakened,” Chatterjee said of her students. Because students haven’t seen each other in a while, some conflicts have been building up for years and can be exacerbated by social media.

A restorative justice exponent in Tatiana Chatterjee’s classroom.

“I’m getting a lot of training, teaching and empathy every day,” Chatterjee said. “Trauma, neglect, adolescence, social media, ego and all kinds of negative forces that encourage us to be so self-centered drive us away from caring for others.”

RJ helped Higareda stay in touch with his peers during distance learning. Although his online classes were “dead silent,” people spoke up in online RJ circles even with their videos turned off. “I definitely think it helped me because I knew the name and I knew the voice. Without it, I didn’t know anyone,” says Higareda. Although he kept in touch with some peers through online RJ circles, Higareda said his personal relationships with classmates were strained.

For example, in his RJ leadership class, there was tension between upper classes and lower classes. Higareda and other juniors felt that younger students were not pulling their weight on projects and activities. “We were each other’s friends and not theirs,” Higareda said. “At that moment we shouted at each other. I saw quite a few people using really bad words and comments at each other,” she says. The class circled a level two to deal with conflict.

A soccer ball is used to help students choose questions for a level circle.

Higareda is the oldest in his family, so when it was his turn to speak he told his classmates that he was tired of being the leader all the time; He wanted others to take initiative and contribute to the class community.

“This circle opened up this space for us to talk and express our opinions, and it was great after that. We all learned something new,” said Higareda. After clearing things up in circles, students who couldn’t talk at the beginning of the year are following each other on social media and hanging out outside of class.

“We all go through a lot,” Kimberly said. “I’ve done a lot of circles where people are actually more vulnerable and I see them for something that they express.”

An ecosystem of care

Santa Ana School Districts, San Diego And the fairies RJ invested in the program. “There’s still a huge movement to adopt these practices in schools,” said Andrew Martinez, another member of the APA Task Force on Violence Against Teachers.

Martinez study Impact of the RJ Program on New York Schools. The study spanned two years and was set to see if RJ could reduce suspension. Based on his interviews with more than 80 students, he found that RJ programs strengthened students’ relationships with schools, but did not reduce suspensions. It may be because of the suspension with adult decisions as much as they do with student behavior.

“The science behind restorative justice practices within school settings has kind of taken a back seat,” Martinez said. Without research and numbers to back up the success of RJ, it is difficult to push for funding for RJ programs in schools.

Even now, Martinez sees parallels between how teachers used RJ circles to navigate community violence in New York public schools and how RJ is being used to address poverty, loss, and inequality in the aftermath of the pandemic. “It’s created a place for kids to hear about a lot of things that are going on in their lives,” Martinez said.

He recommends that RJ be part of an ecosystem of care in a school. Once caring adults know what students are going through, they can make referrals to additional supports such as psychologists, social workers, and counselors.

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