After one year of a systemwide push of restorative justice practices in Montgomery County Public Schools, some people are questioning the method’s effectiveness and calling on the school system to re-evaluate its approach to student discipline.
Restorative justice is an effort to actively engage students in problem-solving physical, psychological, social and disciplinary issues and work with those affected by their actions to restore relationships.
At a recent school board meeting during which restorative justice was discussed, a handful of parents said the effort prioritizes students who act inappropriately over those who follow the rules.
Melissa King, a mother of three MCPS students, said she believes in restorative justice in certain situations, but MCPS has attempted to apply the practices in instances in which traditional discipline, like detention, suspension or expulsion, are necessary.
King said her 11-year-old daughter was sexually harassed by classmates. School staff members resorted to restorative justice methods, like talking circles, to iron out the situation, she said.
“What is happening in our schools is that students who have been harmed are being coerced into Kumbaya sessions rather than being protected from the egregious atrocities of other students who are barely capable of the empathy for such a talk,” King said. “I am here to ask you to protect our children from other children whose offenses are so egregious and so dangerous that they cannot be solved with a chit-chat over McDonald’s nuggets.”
Vicki Reyes, a mother of two high school students, echoed King’s sentiments and said MCPS behavioral expectations have declined under restorative justice practices.
Leaders of the MCPS restorative justice effort, however, say not all schools have received training on how to successfully carry out restorative justice. While the staff at those schools are encouraged to defer until they receive training, they sometimes prematurely engage, they say.
“Our staff will work with those families (that testified). Certainly we can’t replace the hurt and harm that was already caused, but we want to work with those families in that school,” said Ruschelle Reuben, the director of restorative justice, school counseling and student leadership services for MCPS. “… We all agree what’s concealed can’t be healed, so once it’s out there and everyone has a voice, it’s a chance for growth.”
Approximately 2,000 MCPS staff members at 110 schools have received restorative justice training, Reuben said. Fifty-seven schools are expected to receive restorative justice training by the end of summer.
Reuben said that in one year, schools with a restorative justice mindset have seen increased climates and declines in administrative and disciplinary referrals.
Grace Carter, a rising senior at Poolesville High School, said she was diagnosed with hypermobility at a young age, a condition that features joints that easily move beyond the normal range. It is often painful.
Carter said she has had limited mobility since she was a young child and has felt isolated from her peers. But when she participates in “community circles” — a part of restorative justice practices that allow groups of staff and students to discuss ideas and issues — Carter feels a sense of belonging, she said.
“Despite a lifetime of feeling othered and feeling different, I get to participate in a space dedicated to connection,” Carter said. “Restorative justice is more than just reparations after a conflict. It is a dedication to making people like me feel heard and accepted.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com