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Episode 32: Restorative Practice—Strengthening Community

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform for information exchange in which the Department highlights the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. Thank you for joining us.

In August 2020, seven new New Jersey Department of Education Lighthouse Districts were recognized for increasing equity in specific areas. Hoboken, on of our new Lighthouse Districts, was recognized by the Department for increasing equity in disciplinary outcomes. One idea that they embraced as they made changes to see this improvement was Restorative Practice, also called Restorative Practices. When restorative practice is implemented alongside other equitable strategies that can be leveraged for building an environment that's equitable, it can really increase community and improve disciplinary outcomes.

In this episode, we're going to be interviewing Hoboken, who I mentioned. And before that, we're going to start with an interview from an expert in this field so that we can learn what restorative practices are and then dive into what they look like in practice, in Hoboken.

I hope you'll enjoy both interviews as we dive into this essential topic.

And now, I'm excited to kick off this episode with an interview that I conducted with Dr. Anne Gregory, from Rutgers University.

Interview 1: Dr. Anne Gregory, Rutgers University

University at the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, and we're in Middlesex county.

Ken: I wanted to start off the episode with the following question, just so that folks can kind of just get a little bit of a bigger picture of how it's defined and how folks make sense of it. So, how do you define restorative practices and what got you interested in this field of study?

Anne: I was working at a school outside of Boston, and I found…there was a long line of African-American boys that were sent out of the classroom and lined up outside the assistant principal's door related to behavior. And at this time, people weren't talking about the racial discipline gap. And I was working with one particular student in a counseling role, and what struck me was that he was in certain settings in the school and he was thriving. He was doing very well with a librarian, for instance.

And so I just started doing more...making more observations about how he was doing, what was kind of the magic ingredient. And it became clear that it was the quality of his relationships with adults in different settings that was really increasing his social engagement, his sense of belonging, and joy in the space. So that began a long journey for me in doing research in intervention and evaluation with schools, related to understanding how schools are leveraging relationships. And as I looked around in school discipline reform, I felt there was a real emphasis on kind of a behavioral approach, where kids were getting kind of token reward systems, which I think can be useful. But I didn't the beginning, I didn't see as much kind of leveraging of relationships.

And then I came across restorative practices about a decade ago and started doing some...getting trained in it myself and understanding more about it. And I quickly found out there was a lot of work to be done in terms of understanding what high quality implementation looks like. Understanding more about the effects of restorative practices generally.

And what's become clear to me as I've studied implementation is that, first off, restorative practices are grounded in values. When we think about restorative practices, folks talk about the idea of centering healthy relationships. So this idea of community building as a central really value. That schools are valuing as much as they would academic achievement, the idea of relationships and community.

Another value that guides restorative practices is the idea that you can learn through conflict. That every community has conflict, but that we can learn through it. That we can problem solve together. We can repair harm and kind of come out the other end a stronger community.

And then finally, it's the idea of being grounded in justice and equity. And really taking seriously and understanding how marginalizing practices have been kind of baked into so many of our school structures.

So those are some values I think that guide the work. But there's also a set of concrete practices. And we should think about practices from a prevention standpoint. The idea of preventing discipline incidents through building community. And we can think about intervention. Intervention. So when conflict occurs or rule infractions, what do we do? What kind of processes are in place?

And so on the preventive end, there's an emphasis on intentional community-building. Centering relationships. Nurturing adult-adult relationships. So that's a kind of a surround sound approach, among staff, adults, families, and students, to building community. Many people think about community-building circles. Circles in which students are engaging in meaningful topics, being able to see each other kind of in our full selves. And passing a talking piece so everybody gets a chance to talk. Circle prompts are typically focused on...should be kind of something highly youth relevant and also engage social emotional learning principles. So that's kind of the prevention, some of the prevention.

And then intervention. We want to think about what is in policy and practice that can facilitate problem solving for students around conflict. Many folks might think of restorative conferences, for example, as a very concrete practice where you have trained conference facilitators who are engaging the people who've been harmed in an incident. So taking very seriously, from a kind of victims' rights perspective, the experience of conflict. Who has been harmed? Which can include adults, other students. And then, of course, bringing the disputant, the person who's caused the harm, into a circle to do a structured process of reflection. Recognizing harm and then jointly considering how the harm can be repaired.

And when we're thinking about restorative conferencing, we should also be thinking about social emotional learning and really identifying root cause of difficulty. So some students do need supports and social emotional skills, which can also come out of an action plan that comes out of a restorative conference.

So a lot of what you're hearing me say has policy implications. We need to think about: how are codes of conduct? How are things? How is the notion of prevention and community building really incumbent upon educators where is it baked into the school discipline policies or codes of conduct?

And then we should also be thinking about, if students are engaging in a mediation or a conference process, how does that interface with the code of conduct? And really loop teachers and educators back in, who maybe weren't in that conference, to find out what some of the skills are that the students are working on, or what are the action plans to repair the harm.

Ken: You mentioned that equity and social justice are both pieces that are important to consider, and to integrate, and to really bake into restorative practices in districts and schools. So, how can educators create an environment for restorative practices that is equity and social justice oriented and has an anti-racist lens?

Anne: Inadvertently, schools can really reproduce systems of social control, and also of exclusion and marginalization, even with the best intent around restorative practices. So an equity lens I think we can think of in many, many different levels. I think the starting place is working with educators.

So educators, who have so much on their plates, but it includes making very quick decisions under stressful circumstances, especially after a long day. Right? Especially when educators are kind of feeling disregulated and tired, there are times when quick decision making around discipline can be impacted by racial implicit bias. So the first is working with educators to slow down and become aware.

And then another piece is to think about who has access to strong relationships and sense of community and sense of belonging in your schools. You can sit down with your rosters and think, "Which of the students, from which groups, have greater access to kind of supports, advocacy?" And we should be thinking about linguistically diverse groups. You know? Who has access and who doesn't to supportive adults in the school? And so if you  implement restorative practice without thinking through things like access, thinking about inadvertent reproduction of kind of marginalizing practices, you can again just reproduce the same old same old that some kids get more advantage in spaces than others in terms of access to support.

And so, really, an equity lens in restorative practices is coming with adults bringing a critical lens to their practice. Where, in every aspect of the work, they're taking pause to consider how there could be kind of an inadvertent reproduction of marginalizing practices, or enactment of implicit bias or explicit bias. It's taking a hard look at school discipline policy to think about where the disciplinary categories, something like defiance or disruption, or even our dress code, where certain groups—and we should be specifically thinking about African-American students in this kind of harsh, punitive treatment of students of color that we've seen—you know, taking a hard look at those policies and unpacking them as a faculty together to think about, you know, "what does defiance look like? Is there...could there be ways that kind of racism is fueling some of staff's perceptions of what defiance is?" Are there cultural issues where you're socially kind of constructing from one's own educator background what engagement or cooperation looks like, but that, it turns out, is not centering from a strength-based perspective, different cultures about ways of engagement?

I actually did a study where I focused on students—mostly African-American students—who'd been kicked out of class for defiance. I was working in the in-school suspension program trying to understand more. And what I found was that some teachers who—you know these are kind of cross-racial interactions, some of the teachers were white, some Asians, some African-American working with predominantly African-American students—were building wonderful trusting relationships with their students that were really individualized. And a lot of the teachers would say, "oh, this student is, you know, got a lot of energy. He's really social and is connected, and I really try to harness that in the work and engage them. And we step aside. What I was...and when that student is kind of getting unsettled, we step outside and we work through it."

It was...they were speaking in a very different way from a strength based perspective about engaging students and connecting with them in class as opposed to the teachers who were sending them out for defiance were characterizing their relationship as power struggles. You know? As a student's tilt of a head, had attitude. This notion of attitude. And you know, there kind of igniting these back and forth power struggles with very little kind of critical lens where they were able to back up and say "what's happening in this relationship? Why am I reading into this particular student's behavior this challenge?"

So I think that that's where I want to elucidate that there's amazing work going on with students. Where there's staff who are really sort of doing quite well and building relationships across race, across culture, across social class. Connecting and building wonderful relationships that...and, in my perspective, it seems like there's an individuation. There's also recognizing...having kind of a cultural competence and fluency of connecting across groups,  that that came up in that study. They were able to really build trust. So it wasn't always that there was one particular behavior or move, let's say, an educator was doing in the classroom. But fundamentally, when I interviewed students, they had a trust in those teachers. So if the teacher kind of made a mistake in some way, they would say, "oh, but they…I trust them in their best intentions." There was a real focus on that relationship building.

And in this particular study I'm talking about, it was in a high school setting, so even though they were content-based classes, there were the teachers that were doing really well in terms of disrupting this kind of over-representation of African-American students in this category of defiance and disruption had this relational approach to discipline.

Transition to Interview 2

Ken: Now that you've heard about how restorative practice and restorative practices are defined, as well as some of the insights and research that Dr. Anne Gregory had to share, I'd like to move to talking about implementation and what it looks like to build an environment that embraces restorative practices. Next, I'm going to be talking to Hoboken, who took this process on and built an environment within their school district, starting at the high school, that embraced this philosophy. I hope that you are able to gather information that you can take back to your environment as you think about what restorative practices or restorative practice can hold for you.

Interview 2: Hoboken School District

Christine: My name is Christine Johnson. I'm the Superintendent of Schools for the Hoboken Public School District in Hudson County.

Steve: My name is Steve Dickerson. I am the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as well as Director of School-Based Youth Services at Hoboken Public Schools in Hudson County.

Derek: My name is Derek Piccini. I am the Vice Principal at Hoboken High School in Hudson County. 

Ken: The first thing I wanted to ask is just why did you decide this? Why has Hoboken decided to leverage restorative practices?

Steve: This is Steve Dickerson. So what we found—all throughout our administration, at all levels, in the building, in the district—we realized that heavy suspension and detention focus wasn't working. And on…multiple reasons. For the students that we service, as well as for the connection to within the school and the connection to the curriculum, and the work that students are able to engage in.

So we need it in another way. So that we found with restorative practice is it provides a framework that works very well in what we excel at, and that's relationships. The focus of restorative practice is building the relationships. And when there is a break in those relationships, then we respond, leveraging those strong relationships that we built.

Christine: This is Christine Johnson. I was really happy when Mr. Dickerson, Mr. Piccini, and the high school staff initially decided to first research and learn a little more about restorative practices. As Mr. Dickerson was saying, we absolutely realized that suspending students and/or, you know, levying detentions, whether they be after school or on Saturdays, did have an impact, not only on relationships but also on curriculum and student achievement. But then, in addition to that, it also isn't a trust builder with families.

And so when they started to study and research restorative practices, you know, I was very excited about it from the district level. And let them provide the background as to why they thought it was important. And immediately I thought it was something that these two gentlemen Mr. Dickerson and Mr. Piccini, as well as the high school principal, Robin Piccapietra, could absolutely be successful with in a small high school to start.

So, you know, there's a lot of benefits to leveraging restorative practices. But most importantly, it has benefits to all stakeholders, which I think is the most important thing.

Derek: This is Derek Piccini. I think just when we started getting into restorative practices as educators, as administrators, we anticipate, or we feel like, these students should know more than they actually do. And we forget that they don't know how to necessarily deal with all conflicts. So restorative practice definitely takes an approach where we could kind of teach them these things. And that's the biggest difference and the biggest thing that I saw when we started.

[super calm background music]

Ken: You talked about some of those beginning explorations. What did that look like to go from those beginning stages of just exploring thinking to full implementation and building an environment where restorative practices are being embraced and being leveraged for equity? And for your school and your school district to really be able to move the ball forward on disciplinary outcomes?

Derek: This is Derek Piccini. So you mentioned process. Since we started it five years ago it's still a process for us. It's still something that we are continually working on. And when we started,  it was not a pretty sight.

Other person: [laughing in the background]

Derek: I mean, it was...we definitely struggled with it. And then what really, I guess, helped us is that we— me/myself and Mr. Dickerson—were trained in restorative practices through the International Institute for Restorative Practices. And that really helped us learn the actual framework. The different processes. The logic behind it. Later on in that year—I think four or five years ago—we went to the training for trainers and got trained in basic restorative practices and circles in schools. But in between that time and getting the training for it, we were able to kind of start practicing.

And just a little story for me, from where I really started to buy into it, is after that first initial training. You know, there was an incident where a girl was very hyperactive—I was in phys. ed. {physical education} class—who was kind of just bouncing around. They were on a line. A smaller girl passes in front of her. And the one girl that was very hyperactive just pushes her to the ground. So come a couple of chuckles from people around. The one girl that got pushed down is embarrassed.

Okay, so this is it. I just got into this training. Let me try this out. So you know, I asked the restorative questions, separately. And then I kind of bring them together. They're both okay with having the conversation. And I asked the student—she's bouncing around in her chair—like, well, you know "what happened?" And she just, "Oh, I don't know." And like one word answers.

And then I get to the person, the girl, that got pushed down. "What did you do? What were you thinking when you realized what happened?" And she goes through her response. And then, while she's talking, the girl who's very hyper and active and bouncing around in her chair, she stops. She doesn't move a muscle, and just focusing on the girl. And she started to realized that in the one second where she had a quick, initial judgment, in that one judgment of just pushing her down where she didn't think anything of it, it made a big impact on somebody else's day. On that student's day. And it made, you know, just kind of working through those questions. And that's where I really had a lot of buy-in to using restorative practices.

And then becoming a trainer in restorative practices also really helped. And you know training the staff, and really slowly kind of implementing it. And with any change with any staff here, there's gonna be some pushback, I guess, it's another new initiative. But, like I said, it's still a process for us. And we're still kind of working with teachers, and students, and all different kind of stakeholders where we were.

And then I could let Mr. Dickerson, I guess, talk about the equity piece.

Steve: Absolutely. Mr. Steve Dickerson.

So another piece to that implementation process was, it started out with Mr. Piccini and me. But as we started to develop, we created a team. And our team, we had teachers, administrators, CST members {Child Study Team}, and parents that were all involved, while not always at the same time, it was difficult to always get them at the table. But we started to give feedback. And we had people in there, not just people that were on board and ready, we had people that were skeptical.

So to be able to have all those perspectives in one space was important, because there were…there are a lot of questions for school districts that are looking to implement restorative practices. And there's a lot of worries. And once we can help people understand that what we're doing is not replacing the other pieces that we have, it's focusing on what we do best, which is building relationships. And making…helping people understand that.

But as Mr. Piccini said, the best way for the implementation process to really take hold is when people experience it themselves. So to sit in meetings with students who have conflicts, or even teachers, and a teacher and a student who are having a conflict. And to watch the demeanor of that student change as they hear an adult talk about the impact of their behaviors has been powerful. And it's been a powerful tool for us as administrators, but also for the students who know they have a voice. And for teachers who recognize the importance of and the strength of building the relationship. And ensuring that that relationship is strengthened in all their interactions.

Christine: Christine Johnson here. I think, at the district level, the most important thing about the implementation process was getting all stakeholders to understand that, you know, having a code of conduct or disciplinary actions at a school level is, you know, one thing. But most importantly, and what we were dinging that was missing from that code of conduct and any kind of disciplinary actions in any way if necessary, was the learning process behind.

There was nothing up to that point kind of teaching that level of empathy associated with an action.

And it wasn't just about helping teachers understand it and students understand it, but from the parental perspective, it was also very important because early on, I'm sure these gentlemen can tell you, but I know I heard, "It's not fair. I want to know what the consequence was for the other student that may have said something to my child, or did something to my child." But now we are at a point where I think the parents are more understanding of the process, and also more attuned to the greater benefits that are associated with it.

Ken: So, as you have started to implement it, and as, you know, parents have, you know, you talked about parents kind of observing the process. Or, if someone came into your school, a visitor, and they were kind of a fly on the wall observing what things are like now versus what they were like before you started leveraging restorative practice/restorative practices in your district, what would they see that's different? How would they experience your school differently than it used to be experienced?

Steve: Steve Dickerson.

What I think they would first start to see is the relationships, and not just between teachers and students and between staff, but all aspects. So, we...because it's a framework, it's not necessarily a system that everyone is implementing in a cookie-cutter manner. But it's the focus on building relationships. So it's how people interact. How our security guards interact with the families that are coming in with the students. How our food services, how they interact and how connected they are with the students. And focusing not just on their expectations of what behavior are, but what is...what do students need. And that's more of the focus that we've been able to gain from using this framework is "what do students need?"

So when there is a disruption, you'll see the conversations that teachers are having with students, one-on-one conversations. You'll see students circling up, a focus on creating language around how they feel and what happened.

And another different...another change was, when there's a conflict, watching students come together. And instead of trying to argue their side, they know that they're going to be heard. So they can take a step back and allow for another person to say their side before they say their side. So it's not necessarily...and while you see the circles, and while you may hear the questioning, the questions change from "what did you do?" to "what happened?"

You'll also see the way we respond to each other, and at different levels, because it's becoming—and I want to say "becoming," because like Mr. Piccini said, it's a journey—what it's becoming is a focus on how we respond to each other. And how much we value those relationships. And that's what, as you come in, you'll…you would see.

Christine: Christine Johnson. I think if you came to, for example, Hoboken High School six years ago.  I remember when I first arrived in the district in 2015, my image in my head, my mental image of the hallways in the high school were kind of akin to a subway station platform, where there's a lot of people and they're walking around to get to somewhere, but there's really no interaction. There's really no relationship. There's really no  kind of social contract between and among individuals.

But if you come into Hoboken High School now, as a result of not only the restorative practices, but also the work, for example, that Mr. Piccini has also been leveraging in the school with school climate and culture practices, you will see a very different school. You'll see kids talking with each other in a respectful manner. Of course, it's a high school, so they're kids. So you'll certainly see some other things as well. But you'll also see a lot more conversations between students in the hallways and their teachers. The administrators are continuously interacting with the kids at all times. I think that the leveraging of the restorative practices approach to interactions within a school community also positively benefits the overall climate and culture. And it helps adults understand the importance of developing those positive relationships and encouraging positive relationships between and among all stakeholders.

You know,  Dr. Johnson mentioned that to me a couple weeks ago, about how much the high school has changed. And it it's kind of like since I've been there every day, I almost don't even realize the change. Because I, you know, just kind of like "it is what it is" now. And you kind of forget. So I took that as a major compliment. Just students come into my head in particular that they went from having conflicts all the time, to still having those conflicts right maybe, or maybe a reduced amount, but now they're able to resolve those conflicts without it becoming a fight or suspension. And it's "hey, let's take a little break? Let's make sure we cut. We'll come back in an hour or two. Let's have...let's talk." And, you know, we run through the restorative questions. And, you know, things are much better. And they can walk out of the room with not...without an issue. So I would definitely agree, you know, with what is said.


Ken: To end this episode, I'd like to thank you, the listeners, for tuning in. I would like to thank the Office of Student Support Services for all that they did to help make this episode possible. I would like to thank Elizabeth Thomas, who helps transcribes this episode. And I would like to also invite you to our #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat which will be taking place on September 21st at 8:30 pm. Please join us to talk about restorative practices and the ways that they can be utilized in your local education setting.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

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