A new approach to conflict resolution

Grant-funded Jason Lee project will bring "restorative justice" to discipline

5/19/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

​When a child gets suspended or expelled, learning stops. So, how does a school address conflict without interrupting that student’s educational growth?

A three-year, $141,000 grant from College Spark Washington just awarded to Jason Lee Middle School will fund a possible answer to the question.

“Restorative justice,” an approach in which victims and victimizers meet in a safe space to discuss and address their differences, will form the core of the Jason Lee program.

“Restorative justice is about making people whole and doing it in a way that’s not punitive,” said instructional coach Ryan Prosser. “When we’re working with students we’re providing opportunities for them to have face-to-face conversations with the person that wronged them in a safe environment, in a way that restores both parties and makes them whole.”

The first year’s grant money will fund professional training for Jason Lee’s teachers and staff, grounding them in the basics of creating such “safe spaces.”

“What it’s looking at is instead of punitive suspensions and expulsion, we use relationship skills, whether one-to-one peer mediation or conversation circles, where you bring in kids together that have made similar poor choices and an adult leader to mediate,” said Jason Lee Principal Christine Brandt. “It’s helping kids through conflict resolution. Every time a kid is suspended, that’s that much less time they’re spending in school getting an education. We know conflict arises, so how do we deal with it? Rather than going fist-to-face in two seconds, we want to get to a place where we’re finding other ways to deal with those conflicts."

By putting the aggressor face to face with the victim in a safe space where both can share thoughts and come to agreement about how to make amends, the approach seeks to involve offender and victim alike, so the offender understands the harm he or she has caused, and the victim finds closure and resolution.

The restorative justice model arose from efforts in the criminal justice system. According to the Centre for Justice & Reconciliation, an international nonprofit organization, rather than focusing solely on punishment of offenders as a response to crime, restorative justice seeks to repair the harm caused by criminal behavior.

“Let’s say there was a fight and one kid was clearly a victim,” said Prosser. “What does it look like when you come back from that? Do you have a way to heal the situation? And not just for students but for staff and families. This approach, I think, extends beyond the school to the community as well.”

The restorative justice approach also seeks to reintegrate both offender and victim into the community. The College Spark grant provides three years of funding for Jason Lee to train in and implement such a program, with the goal of lowering the suspension and expulsion rate for students, give students and teachers better tools for conflict resolution and, in the end, improve educational outcomes across the board.

“I view it as, how do we do right by kids?” said Prosser. “We’re trying to create a culture at Jason Lee that honors our students—their identities and their experiences. That could be for students of color, LGBTQ, students with disabilities … how do we create spaces where all of those students know they are supported?”

Eventually, Prosser and Brandt said, what works at Jason Lee could scale up and work across the district and beyond.

“If it works at Jason Lee and the district, other people should be doing it too,” said Prosser. “If students feel respected and valued and honored at school they’ll be more likely to attend and learn. It’s one thing to say we’ll be respectful, but it’s another thing to be intentional and work on creating these conversations.”