To say we are living in unprecedented times is an understatement — forms of government, institutions, norms and ways of everyday life are being challenged and disassembled, all in the midst of a pandemic. One of the most notable institutions being called into question is the police. While discussions about how to change policing wage on, school districts around the country are rethinking whether police officers belong in schools and what their role with students should be.
In order to get to a point where police officers are not in schools — schools have to build a culture of learning, empathy, caring and integrity. Students need to feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to school. Schools do not need to be utopic, but should acknowledge the ways that history, race, gender, trauma, language differences and accessibility manifest themselves in schools on a daily basis. It is time to address the whys behind students’ actions, which could include issues such as built up trauma, peer pressure, mental health issues, and more. Restorative justice practices provide opportunities to do just that — to not only understand what happened, but to also examine why it happened and how to prevent it in the future.
At a non-profit mediation firm in Hennepin County Minnesota, we approach mediation and restorative justice as the beginning of a conversation. We have these conversations in Minneapolis and surrounding suburban middle and high schools. When necessary we create guidelines, but we understand that these conversations may not end with clear answers or steps forward despite their importance. We seek to understand and value students’ opinions. Our conversations are grounded in honesty, authentic listening, and an appreciation for everyone’s experience and opinions, regardless of age.
My work often involves having voluntary, confidential, conversations with students after a student, a teacher, or an administrator reports an incident of conflict, which could be an incidence of bullying, a verbal altercation, and/or a physical fight that would typically result in a suspension or detention. My coworkers and I ask students questions such as, “What was going on that day before the fight? How were you impacted, how was the other person impacted, and was anyone else impacted by what happened? What do you need in order to make this better? What can you give in order to make this better?” This humble and simple approach is designed to encourage students to see the shared humanity in each other and recognize that we all make mistakes, everyone causes harm, and we all have been harmed to varying degrees. This process does not mean there is no accountability for students who have conflict, but rather that there is value in taking a step back to understand the conflict in a different way. Through this exercise, students can process their emotions, and they are given support on how to move forward.
In addition to conferencing, my coworkers and I foster relationship building among students, and with teachers, by facilitating community building circles in classrooms. This conflict prevention practice draws on indigenous practices in Minnesota and various other restorative justice traditions from around the world. In community building circles, students and teachers are asked questions like “What is a perfect day to you? And what does a bad day look like to you?” These questions are intended to conjure up a range of feelings and emotions in students, allowing them to reflect on themselves, and connect to each other, thus fostering a sense of community.
My work on community building and conflict resolution in schools has taught me that, as Mia Mingus once said, when we “invest in each other as our greatest resource” we can move forward to addressing conflict in a healthy and respectful way. I would encourage school staff and administrators to reflect on how they can foster a sense of community in their schools, explore restorative justice, and shift away from the often damaging reliance on police in schools to manage conflict.
Madeline is a current Master of Human Rights student at University of Minnesota concentrating in Institutional Transformation and Social Justice. Madeline has a passion for community work and restorative justice. Madeline also served as a JPI intern during the Spring semester of 2019.