Editor’s Note: This article was originally intended to be a small part of Paul Rosenberg’s larger June 11 cover story, Remaking Justice. That story discussed defunding and abolition of the police on a national scale. This narrative continues to develop those ideas and what they look like through restorative justice in the local community.
The Center For Justice and Reconciliation defines Restorative Justice as a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior. Through cooperative processes that allow all willing stakeholders to meet, this can lead to transformation of people, relationships and communities. When meeting is impossible, other approaches are available.
San Pedro High School established its Restorative Justice program in 2016. Lauren Toledo was the 2020 graduating club president, the third in the life of the program. John Guldseth, teacher sponsor of the RJ program, as it is called, exchanged email with Random Lengths News to lay out the impact of restorative justice on a high school campus and its effectiveness on a larger society level.
“Whenever I share what RJ is with a student, I ask them, ‘If you do something wrong, say at work or school, and you are in trouble for it, do you want to be punished or restored?’” Guldseth said.
Guldseth said no student has ever expressed a preference for punishment if they were already concerned that they did something wrong. He posited that when people need to correct an attitude or an action, a mentor who believes in them always provides more incentive to do right, and to do good than any law or statute.
At the high school level, the first goal of restorative justice is to build relationships and trust.
People protect each other when they are connected, Guldseth explained. Likewise, people are protected when they view one another with trust. The meeting circle is a structure that begins this process in schools, organizations, institutions and even prisons, where inmates begin to learn what it means to empathize with others.
“This process moves minds beyond the fixed mindset of victim/victimizer,” he said. “The beauty of RJ is in its simplicity.”
What Happens in RJ
SPHS classroom practices for restorative justice include specific check-in circles once per week to start and finish the week and discuss student led topics.
All teachers send around a talking piece, weekly to share or check-in once for each period. They will ask an empathy question or conduct SEAD; Stop Everything and Dialogue All School Practice, among other practices.
Within the first six weeks of school, students have learned the circle process, talking piece, center-piece and how to facilitate opening and closing discussions. They shared their values in the classroom and developed common agreements and values, which they have voted on. And they have chosen up to 10 school-wide values and agreements, displaying them throughout the campus.
Teachers and administrators instruct students in restorative questions and how to make amends.
Guldseth described how these practices look in the classroom as students draw a question and use a talking piece to discuss the idea or topic. If someone wants to pass, they can. Anyone sharing does not need to make eye contact with others in the group [an object on which the students can focus their attention, is placed in the middle of the circle]. Students who do not usually talk with groups of people know they won’t be interrupted and that they own that time with the talking piece.
“Many different reactions begin to emerge,” Guldseth said. “Some students will express an alternate opinion, or they will reinforce an idea shared. But the unique aspect of a circle is that [during the] past four years, no student has ever felt disrespected for what they shared. Very often, the opposite is expressed, that they had never shared before and it felt good.”
For Guldseth, restorative justice is not a means to universal consensus about ideas, but a process that supports students understanding each other. The sense of community is a first step in the many other positive aspects of collaborative effort.
Imagining New Ways to Structure Our System
In the past four years, SPHS has seen a reduction in suspensions. It allows students to express an apology when they are alone [with the person they have hurt] and a moderator. Moderators are able to play a supportive role to both while they share and attempt to build a bridge or meaningful basis for a common understanding. It’s not about who was wrong or right, but about how both can feel connected, functional, respected and part of the community.
“In terms of public policy, imagine how we would change and grow as a society if there were a process for making amends instead of serving time,” Guldseth said. “Both parties can heal where there is understanding and a willingness to grow. As a society, we need to grow beyond cause and effect, action/reaction.”
Guldseth believes in justice that is restorative because young people who are growing up with it as an option in school respond with real deference, empathy and leadership ability that is not often seen in society.
“When confronted with hurt, their attitude is not, ‘They got what they deserved!’ Instead they are asking, ‘Can we give someone what they need?’” Guldseth said. “How can we move beyond this pain for the benefit of both? We do not ignore the hurt, but with the restorative justice mindset, the hurt can transform to understanding and resolve, to growth and resilience for both parties.”
The three big ideas of restorative justice are: to repair: crime causes harm and justice requires repairing that harm; to encounter: this calls on the parties involved to decide together how to best facilitate their encounter and lastly, transformation: this can cause fundamental changes in people, relationships and communities.
The foundational principles of restorative justice have been summarized as follows:
• Crime causes harm and justice should focus on repairing that harm.
• The people most affected by the crime should be able to participate in its resolution.
• The responsibility of the government is to maintain order and of the community to build peace.