Building Restorative Justice in Schools From the Ground Up

Justice “is not something that’s stored in [city halls or criminal legal centers] that gets rationed out to us once we commit trespasses against each other. Justice is something grander than that, that can’t be contained in any building. … Justice is how we meet each other, greet each other, and treat each other.”

These words were shared by Kempis “Ghani” Songster of Healing Futures during a recent event hosted by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and Impact Justice. For three weeks in late July and early August, members of the Speak Truth to Power human rights education team gathered with educators from around the world to discuss “Restorative Justice in Our Schools: Building Sustainable, Community-Based Solutions to Conflict and Harm.” This series of three training workshops held on Zoom was led in partnership with Cymone Fuller and Sia Henry of the Restorative Justice Project at Impact Justice, a national innovation and research center advancing new ideas and solutions for justice reform. The Restorative Justice Project is the only national technical assistance and training project that partners with communities across the nation to address harm using pre-charge restorative justice diversion programs.

Restorative justice is a philosophical framework built upon creating, maintaining, and mending relationships. Recognizing that we are all interconnected, it presents an alternative to the punitive approach of addressing wrongdoing. Instead of focusing on what law/rule was broken, who broke it, and who should be punished, restorative justice acknowledges who has been harmed and then helps to determine what that person needs and whose obligation it is to meet those needs.

“Our Speak Truth to Power educators are returning to school in the fall with the compounded trauma of a global pandemic and a polarized social environment suffering from racial injustice,” says Laura Osterndorf, training manager of the Speak Truth to Power team. “By bringing restorative practices and human rights principles into the classroom, teachers and students are building relationships that support social-emotional well-being and deeper empathy and skills to repair harm when it occurs.”

The first workshop started at the roots of restorative justice, discussing restorative justice as a practice of societal liberation in which people aim to build communities and do right by the people who have been harmed. The next workshop saw guest facilitator Reuben Roberts of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth lead educators in a discussion of identifying root causes of trauma and criminalization of BIPOC youth in schools, to work to sever the school-to-prison pipeline and create a school culture in which students’ identities and strengths are affirmed through social-emotional learning and teaching.

“What we really need is interconnectedness and understanding, and knowing and seeing each other, and having those spaces where we feel like we can fully be ourselves, but also that we can co-create communities that we want to see as opposed to just be handed a set of rules or handed a community that we’re being asked to participate in,” Henry said.

In the final session, workshop attendees heard from a panel of human rights defenders who have participated in restorative justice programs, including Reuben, Ghani, Stephanie Medley of RYSE Youth Center, and youth activist Perriona-Zamari Chihi. When asked why she engages in restorative justice work, Stephanie said, “We are all a beloved community. … We’re all connected to one another.” She added that a whole-school approach to restorative justice and human rights considers “administrators, teachers, young people, and families … building relationships with one another to move from a punishment-based system with over-policing of our students and families [to] spaces where if harm has been committed, we actually sit in that conflict and work on a strategy [to] repair and rebuild those relationships.”

The workshops drew participants from all over the world, brought together by a common desire to cultivate healthy and safe communities that support and empower their students. As Reuben shared, “The biggest thing [with] implementing restorative justice in schools [is] to have a safe space for folks to have real authentic conversations and also to repair the harm that’s done on both ends, not just for the person that was harmed but [for] the person that also did the harm, [to] understand why they did it [and that it] is a systemic issue [that is] much bigger than … individualized situations.”