Dave Ward, student assistance counselor, and Christina Norment, counselor, outside their office at Harrisonburg High School, were among the first cohort to earn graduate certificates in restorative justice at Eastern Mennonite University. The cohort included 12 educators from the Shenandoah Valley. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

New ways of working, teaching and interacting come with graduate certificate in restorative justice in education

Why learn more about restorative justice in education?

How will it change your perspective on your work, your educational community and even your personal life?

Read on to hear reflections from four educators — two counselors, an administrator and a school psychologist among a group of 12  — who earned a graduate certificate in restorative justice in education at Eastern Mennonite University.

They took five classes, one a semester and one in the summer, each addressing an essential element of the application of restorative justice as applied to educational settings: foundations of RJE, restorative discipline, peacebuilding and conflict transformation, facilitating circle processes, and an elective.

The result was transformative, say these four educators: a new way of looking at people, at the educational community, at the value of conflict, what it teaches us and our students, and ways to work towards positive transformation.

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On meaningful professional development curriculum

Dr. Lynn Rogers, school psychologist, Staunton City Schools

This coursework has been invaluable. It not only included the framework, theory and research supporting RJE, but also included the opportunity to

  • practice the skills in role plays (circles, mediations, restorative circles),
  • develop my own understanding of how RJE could look in my school system,
  • hear how other educators are implementing RJE and the challenges they face,
  • have difficult conversations in safe places about challenges that face our school systems;
  • learn new ways of “looking at situations” that focus on the values of RJE (e.g., relationships, inclusion, communication, conflict transformation).

How learning about RJE impacts one’s professional and personal life

Christina Norment, Harrisonburg High School counselor

What I didn’t realize was how much of RJ is a “lens” through which you look at the world — both professionally and personally.

In this program, we were asked to look at our core assumptions about people and move forward from that place. I found that when I did this, it naturally affected everything that I do. I think that the RJ assumptions are a gracious way of viewing the world. When I use this lens, I am my best self.

As I began to look through this new RJ lens, I began notice differences in how I talk to students about conflict, how I communicate with my co-workers, and how I parent my two sons.

It was helpful to begin to embrace conflict as an inevitable part of life that helps people to grow and improve. When we do this, conflict can actually strengthen relationships in the end. When I come from this perspective, I’m able to help my students manage conflict in a healthy way, rather than shy away from it or push it aside.

Reflecting on meeting needs of at-risk students

Dave Ward, student assistance counselor, Harrisonburg High School

 My work as a counselor is often with the most at-risk students, many of whom have been in trouble with the traditional discipline system. I have seen firsthand the way that suspensions and continuous issues without real intervention can contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. I have also worked with people who have been victims, and who have felt like traditional discipline doesn’t meet their needs for healing and reintegration.

The philosophy of restorative justice gives an alternative to traditional discipline in that the needs of the victim are taken into consideration in a meaningful and intentional way, and the person who has harmed has the opportunity to make things right in a meaningful and intentional way. The approach has really has been refreshing.

Why do we punish students who handle conflict poorly, rather than give them more support to handle it positively? 

Christina Norment

I see student mishandling of conflict as a need for more support rather than an offense that must be punished. I think that my students get the message that I’m much more interested in teaching them than I am in judging them.

The punishing doesn’t work. We wouldn’t punish a student for incorrectly solving a math problem — we would provide more math instruction.

RJE says that it’s no different when it comes to our students trying to solve an interpersonal problem ineffectively. When a conflict arises, one must work with the other person to make it right. No one learns how to resolve conflict any more effectively when they are simply suspended.

We don’t develop character through listening to a lecture on it — we develop character in the context of ongoing, dynamic relationships. RJ practices provide this context in which our students can grow personally, socially and academically.

New RJ-focused approaches to daily challenges

Dr. Jelisa Wolfe, executive director of student services, Staunton City Schools (oversees special education, 504 plans, nurses, guidance, attendance, homebound students, preschool and more)

​ RJ fits in my work in multiple ways.  From a school climate lens, RJ “thinking and doing” helps support our staff, students and families in helping build a sense of community, providing a foundation to build trusting, open relationships and to help foster a sense that we can learn from mistakes. It can increase our accountability to one another more authentically.

Something that I have changed is how I run division discipline meetings. I work hard to create a space where all voices are heard, and have started asking the student and family to speak first, rather than asking the student to respond to what the school staff says (which is what I have traditionally done).  Next steps for this process is to schedule meetings at a time that the teacher(s) involved in the issue are at the table as well.

​ I am a firm believer in RJE: I think that if we can move forward in shifting our mind set towards our obligations towards one another to create and foster healthy, compassionate and accountable relationships with one another, we will create a rock solid foundation for students to learn in safe, supportive environments. ​

Practical knowledge for political environments

Dr. Lynn Rogers

RJE “competes” with a variety of other initiatives (academic, Virginia Tiered Systems of Supports) so that sometimes it is hard to move forward.  Luckily, we have talked about even these issues (i.e., challenges with implementation) in our classes so I hope I am well-prepared in many areas as RJE unfolds in our system and community.

Pass it on: building towards more restorative schools

Christina Norment and Dave Ward have become resources for other educators, providing training for the counseling staff and for teachers and other staff. They plan to present on RJ mediation techniques at the 2017 Virginia School Counselor Association Conference. Christina plans to join the district’s mental health coordinator to speak to EMU MA in education students in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Jelisa Wolfe has presented to the school board. Sixteen staff attended the two-day Restorative Justice in Education Academy, where Jelisa was a panelist.

Lynn Rogers has conducted several circles with the alternative school faculty to facilitate communication among staff and model/teach the circle process. With fellow cohort member and colleague Gina Gaines, she piloted using circles with alternative school students. Based on these experiences, coursework and the Circle Forward textbook, she has developed a specific curriculum for initiating circles at the school. She has also conducted mediations at the middle and high school, and reached out to a Staunton-area education reform group interested in RJE.

“In a broader sense,” she says, “RJ principles have affected the way I think about supporting students in school.”

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