By NEIL ZAWICKI

The Milton Town School District wants to redesign how teachers deal with behavior and discipline problems in the classroom. 

Specifically, the district wants to add a Restorative Practices policy, which focuses on dialogue and inclusion, giving a voice to both the offender and the victim, with the goal of “restoring” harmony and positive behavior. 

Although Restorative Practices have been available to teachers at Milton in the past, the district is now adding them into policy.

District Superintendent Amy Rex expects the implementation process to take three to five years. It will include the creation of a Restorative Practices Committee for both the high school and the PreK-8 school, and the addition of a Restorative Practices/Harassment, Hazing and bullying (HHB) coordinator at the PreK-8 school.

“This not only a shift in practice, but in mindset,” she said, explaining how society has been indoctrinated to believe that “if a student breaks a rule, we punish them.”

To be sure, restorative practices, while debated, have been around for at least a generation. Theo Gavrielides is a United Kingdom-based academic author, lawyer, and founder of the non-governmental organization Restorative Justice for All. In his 2015 book, Restorative Justice: Ideals and Realities, Gavrielides traces the restorative approach to the early 1970s, and describes it as an alternative to retributive justice, which focuses only on the offense and denies the offender participation in the reparation process. In recent years, educators and social scientists have drawn parallels between the criminal justice system and public school discipline challenges. Restorative practice advocates see the  “crime and punishment” method as a detriment to both groups.

With this goal in mind, the district faculty gathered Aug. 19 in the Milton High School auditorium for a training session, hosted by Camille Koosman, the Restorative Practices in Schools Specialist with the Franklin Grand Isle Restorative Justice Center. Koosman helped to implement and advises with the Restorative Practices program at Bakersfield School. She gave the teachers background information and statistical information on the value of restorative practices. She also acknowledged the transition will take time.

“Nobody’s going to leave this training today ready to build a restorative classroom from the ground up,” she told the group.

Koosman explained how building positive relationships and establishing a supportive environment are at the core of the Restorative Practice method. Rather than reacting to the offense, teachers will focus on the harm the behavior caused and what reparations can be made. 

To do this, they’ll sit down with the offending student and ask them what happened and what they were thinking and feeling at the time. They’ll also ask the student to consider what they have thought about since the incident, and who has been affected. From there, they will ask the student for what part of the incident they are willing to take responsibility, and what they can do to make things right. 

The practice also focuses on what rule has been broken and what consequence is appropriate. 

The tricky part is that participation in the restorative process, for the student, is voluntary. The new approach brought some pushback from a handful of educators at the training, who told Koosman they think it’s a great idea, but they don’t see how it’s going to work in practice.

“It’s voluntary, so what happens with the kids who just refuse to participate?” asked an educator.  Another said, “We can’t have a system that doesn’t have consequences.”

Rex said such concerns, while valid, can be addressed through a deeper understanding of the causes of the behavior. She said her experience has shown that the students who do not want to participate typically fall into two categories.

“One, they do not possess the skills or confidence to participate,” she said. “Two, they do not feel valued as a member of the community.”

Rex said such students might be afraid to take risks, or do or say something for which they will be judged. 

“They may not trust that the community will support them,” said Rex. 

Paraphrasing Koosman, Rex said all humans want to belong and to be accepted, “but not all have had positive community experiences and/or guidance in developing prosocial skills.”

Rex added that overcoming such challenges is part of hers and her colleagues work as educators.

Rex also asserted that restorative justice is more than just a “great idea.”

“There is ample evidence now that shows when done properly, it works,” she said. “Last, I did not hear anyone say our school system was getting rid of consequences. It is about reframing them. It is about understanding the unmet need.”

Rex also talked about “unpacking” the unmet needs of students through restorative practices.

“A student who refuses to attend class, perhaps because they don’t understand the material or had a fight with their parent before school, needs and deserves to have that unmet need unpacked and an opportunity to make up missed time and missed learning,” she said. 

Rex also said a student who is a safety risk to others or vandalizes property deserves to have that unmet need unpacked, along with natural consequences. “This is different from ‘punishment’ or that which humiliates, isolates, or degrades a student without concern or understanding for why the behavior occurred, [which can deny] any opportunity to grow, learn and belong,” she said. 

Rex said the district is still in the organizational and planning stages for implementation of the new practice. Her vision is that the restorative practices committee will do the planning, set goals, identify resources, and plan professional development, with each school having their own implementation team.