“When will our conscience grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?” -Eleanor Roosevelt
For many people, middle school was something they just had to get through. Being bullied was something that, while of course wrong, was inevitable. At the Paulo Freire Freedom Schools, we have always rejected that view, believing that 11-14 year olds deserve a safe and supportive community as much as anyone else – perhaps even more so.
However, there does seem to be something about the nature of young adolescents’ development that makes them uniquely susceptible to hurting and being hurt by their peers. Middle school students are deeply invested in their peer relationships, and this occurs at the same time that they are forming a more sophisticated picture of their self-identify and becoming hyper aware of larger societal issues of fairness. This can create a powder-keg of emotional turmoil. It is no wonder that middle school has such a bad rap and articles are written with titles such as How To Survive Middle School (which by the way is a pretty good compilation of advise if you are interested).
So each year at PFFS we are intentional with the ways we strive to improve our school culture. We practice the habit of care, talk about Ben’s Bells with its focus on kindness, and use our small, personalized advisories as a place to work through individual problems and concerns. But of course, conflicts still arise, students still make poor choices; it’s just inevitable. That is where restorative justice comes in.
Restorative justice is a philosophical framework that emphasizes repairing harm rather than meting out punishment. It focuses mostly on the needs of those who are harmed and the involved community – rather than on the person(s) responsible for the harm. Restorative approaches can be traced back thousands of years and there are many examples, as well, of restorative processes being used effectively within our modern criminal justice systems.
In schools, restorative justice is becoming more popular because it empowers students to resolve conflicts on their own. It also requires students to use critically important, cognitive and noncognitive, social skills. PFFS-University has been using restorative justice to varying degrees since its inception. This year, we have returned to the substantial research and literature that has been developed in the last decade, to revamp our program. And now we are pleased to announce that we are ready to roll out our new format, Restorative Justice Circles, facilitated by faculty and supported by a cadre of trained students who make up the student Restorative Justice Youth Council. Circles will be used for multiple purposes:
- to improve the dynamics of a specific group,
- to provide restitution to a party that has been harmed, and/or,
- to work out a conflict between two or multiple parties.
There will be a system for determining which incidents/requests for support will go to a circle so that they are not overused or exploited.
Through a process of nomination and staff selection, interested students from both Paulo Freire Freedom Schools will be trained in the philosophy and processes of Restorative Justice Circles and the practice of conflict resolution principles. Students can nominate themselves if they are committed to being part of this important process and are interested in learning these valuable life skills. Nomination slips are being given out today at each school and must be turned in by Tuesday, December 8th. The Restorative Justice Circles student training will be on Friday, December 18th, from 11-2, at PFFS-University.
At the beginning of each school year, many former Paulo Freire students (PFFS graduates, now in high school) return to visit our school. They do so because they recognized that for three years, PFFS was home to them. Middle school can be a place where young people are nurtured as well as challenged. It can yield teenagers who have a secure sense of self identity and a habit of care for others. It can be a place that is remembered fondly by 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in their later years. We are excited by these circles will bring to our PFFS communities and we believe strongly that they will help us continue to create this different narrative about the middle school experience. To read more about restorative justice in schools see Restorative Justice: Resources for Schools at Edutopia.
“It is clear that the way to heal society of its violence…and lack of love is to replace the pyramid of domination with the circle of equality and respect.” –Manintonquat, Elder of the Assonet Band of the Wampanoag Nation