Amherst schools use restorative justice circles to resolve conflicts

  • Amherst Regional Middle School seventh-graders Dana Cruz, left, and Laila Smith talk about their experiences with a restorative justice process the school is trying. Photographed on Friday, April 12, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional Middle School seventh-graders Dana Cruz, left, Laila Smith and Leila (last name withheld) talk about their experiences with a restorative justice process the school is trying. Photographed on Friday, April 12, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Climate and Culture Coordinator Evelin Aquino talks with Amherst Regional Middle School seventh-graders on Friday, April 12, 2019, about their experiences with a restorative justice process the school is trying. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional Middle School seventh-grader Richard Sena talks about his experience with a restorative justice process the school is trying. STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional Middle School seventh-graders Dana Cruz, left, Laila Smith and Leila (last name withheld) talk about their experiences with a restorative justice process the school is trying. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional Middle School seventh-grader Roman Berry talks about his experience with a restorative justice process the school is trying. STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional Middle School seventh-graders Dana Cruz, left, Laila Smith and Leila (last name withheld) talk about their experiences with a restorative justice process the school is trying. Photographed on Friday, April 12, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dana Cruz takes part in a discussion with other Amherst Regional Middle School seventh-graders on Friday, April 12, 2019, about their experiences with a restorative justice process the school is trying. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regionl Middle School’s Climate and Culture Coordinator Evelin Aquino talks with seventh-graders about their experiences with a restorative justice process the school is trying. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/16/2019 6:23:27 PM

When a conflict occurred last month between three seventh-grade Amherst-Pelham Regional Middle School students, officials turned to “the circle” to resolve the conflict.

While suspension was on the table for some of the girls involved in the incident, Evelin Aquino saw it as an chance to put the school’s new restorative justice initiative into action.

Aquino, the school’s climate and culture coordinator, suggested the students hold a circle discussion. The idea behind a restorative justice circle is straightforward — instead of using a punishment like suspension, students and others affected by a conflict are brought together to talk about what happened and what needs to be done to make it right.

At first, the middle schoolers didn’t want to do it, said Leila, one of the young women involved, who did not want her last name used. But they were also friends and didn’t want their relationships broken.

“It was stressing us out that we had drama ... We don’t need all this drama,” said Laila Smith, another seventh-grader involved.

In the circle facilitated by Aquino, they spent an hour talking about the conflict, mostly focusing on why it happened, Dana Cruz explained. “We had time to explain to each other how we felt.”

“It was a good experience to go through,” said Leila. “We learned from our mistakes.”

Aquino has held about five of these restorative justice circles since she started in her position in January. The middle school has been working on using restorative justice practices and hopes to do more circles like these to address disciplinary issues as the program develops.

Meanwhile, Amherst-Pelham Regional High School has been teaching student leaders about restorative justice. The school received a grant from the Amherst Education Foundation to support that training.

Unlike traditional discipline like suspensions, when it comes to restorative justice, Aquino said, “You don’t just check the box and keep walking. It’s an opportunity for the folks in conflict to move through it and reach a level of understanding and one another’s humanity to be honored, which in traditional discipline practices is missing.”

For example, earlier this year two students got into a physical altercation in a school hallway where a punch and push were exchanged. Aquino facilitated a circle with the two students after that, talking about what happened and why, and who else was harmed.

“That could have easily been a disciplinary matter that would have raised the stakes for those men to be in trouble,” Aquino said.

Suspensions can increase a student’s risk of getting tied up in the criminal justice system, Aquino said. After multiple disciplinary incidents, some schools will label a young person as a troublemaker and could start calling the police when problems arise, she said.

Currently in education, there’s a push to move away from zero tolerance policies, Aquino said, which can increase the school-to-prison pipeline, defined by the American Civil Liberties Union as “a disturbing national trend where children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” 

Across the country, students of color have disproportionately high rates of suspension and expulsion. Three times the number of black students, for example, are suspended and expelled than white students, and black students are more likely to be arrested in school, according to U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights data. Black girls have some of the highest suspension rates, and there are also disparities for students with a disability or who are English language learners.

Leila feels like people of color are more often labeled as “bad.” “It’s something we don’t want to be but end up being,” she said.

These disparities exist in Amherst, too.

When Rebecca Sweetman and Joseph Smith were named co-interim principals last summer, Sweetman recalled, “One of the things we talked about was how there are all these celebrations and assemblies and wonderful things that talk about diversity.” And while it’s very important to celebrate, she said, “It’s also important to look at our system and practices.”

Data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education shows that there are racial disparities when it comes to discipline.

“When you look at demographics, you can see that suspension rates out of school were higher for students of color,” Sweetman said.

“There are systems of oppression that exist and we need to go a lot deeper to change.”

Currently, the restorative justice practices in the school are still developing, and conflicts get referred to Aquino on a situational basis, Sweetman said.

“We try to do as much as we can, but since we’re still planning and training it will take time,” she said.

Ultimately, Sweetman said she would like to see all conflicts worked out this way.

Aquino said sometimes, in the theoretical case of using a weapon, for example, a suspension is necessary. But, she said, “oftentimes those cases are far and in between.”

Sweetman said that last week all middle school staff were trained in circle practices that aim to help build trust and relationships before a conflict arises, and in the fall, the school plans to start circle practices twice a week.

Essentially, Aquino said these types of exercises entail sitting in a circle and giving everyone the opportunity to respond to guiding questions. Not all teachers really know all their students, and many students are in classes together but don’t really know each other either, Aquino said.

“The community building is just as important as addressing conflict,” Aquino said. “The idea is that if there was no harmony in the first place, it’s hard to restore that.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com




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