6. Respond to Harm as a Community

Restorative justice invites all community members to respond to multiple forms of harm and support each other in healing. Such community-wide efforts are stronger and more sustainable than those led by one or two people, and they dramatically expand the tools we have to address harm, making it possible to draw on the many relationships, distinct wisdom, and capacity (including time!) of staff, students, their families, and neighbors. In particular, we heard from participants about how much is gained when students lead restorative responses to harm in their communities. [Link “when students lead’] Read More...

Restorative justice asks us to transform how we respond to harm and conflict when it does occur. A few participants emphasized how restorative justice helps communities rethink and “normalize” conflict, recognizing that it is unavoidable, and not a sign of failure or a lack of safety. Acknowledging, as Morgan put it, that “we’re humans and conflict does exist,” restorative justice helps us leverage relationships and key practices to address it in ways that promote safety and healing for all involved. And participants were clear that harm can take many forms—interpersonal, institutional, structural, which do not occur in isolation, and aren’t all named by school discipline codes. This recognition helps us move beyond narrow ideas about ‘changing student behavior,” and towards a holistic understanding that everyone in a community (youth and adults) can cause harm and be harmed, and that we all deserve chances to heal and grow. 

Restorative justice asks that we focus on the healing needs of those who have been harmed, while also supporting those who have caused harm to take accountability—with action, not just words—to address their unmet needs. This dual focus is an essential part of understanding individual and institutional root causes of why harm happens, and ways to transform it. Many participants described a core belief in their school cultures and restorative practice that people make mistakes, but no one is ever disposable; this mindset transforms these difficult moments from sources of shame into opportunities for growth and healing. And in doing so, we continue building practices, skills, and knowledge to respond to and prevent harm in the future.

Youth and adults described powerful experiences of the way response-to-harm circles gave them a chance to speak and a chance to listen. We heard about how they walked away with a better understanding of those they were in conflict with, while also feeling heard, respected, and understood by others. As A. Geis explained her experience facilitating a conflict between two students, “We asked the questions of why. One person talked first and the other person has the time to talk… it wasn’t like, you guys are being interrogated or pushed to say that you were wrong. No, it was just sharing how you felt.”

But we also heard about times when people were harmed and did not feel adequately cared for by school staff, creating a second layer of harm. A couple people felt like a student who caused harm was the main focus of the ‘restorative’ response, drifting far from the healing promise of restorative justice. A few staff spoke about the delicate dance of restoratively addressing root causes of harm, while making sure not to center people who caused harm—especially when staff capacity is limited.

And staff spoke about the tension of navigating the sometimes blurry line between restorative and punitive responses in schools, with the ongoing presence of suspension. A couple of staff spoke about how they try to maintain a restorative spirit when students are suspended from their schools: making sure the student knows they are very much still a part of the community, by remaining in constant contact, providing supports, and addressing root causes of what happened. Both of these staff said that the temporary physical distance can be helpful for everyone to have space to heal, but there is still emotional closeness. On the other hand, another staff person described even the possibility of suspension as limiting the capacity of schools to be truly restorative. And a few students and staff spoke about the importance of student willingness to participate; as Sad C. explained, restorative practices can be “used very punitively… like “you have to go to a circle… It’s defeating the whole concept because there’s no self-determination. It’s like another form of punishment.”

Listen to Community Voices

Hear from students, parents, and educators about visions of what it can look like when we respond to harm restoratively, as a community.

Work through Contradictions

Vent Diagrams help us reflect on the challenges, complexities, and contradictions of doing this work, and figure out how we can keep moving forward. Here is one of the big tensions we heard from participants about restorative responses to harm in school communities.

left half of vent diagram, which is a venn diagram with nothing in the center, showing the tension between the two texts right half of vent diagram

No one should be harmed in school

Everyone causes harm sometimes

Talk with Your Community

What does this look like for you and the people in your life? Use the prompts below to explore ideas about conflict, harm, and healing with others in your school and communities, laying the groundwork for community understanding and making change. (Check out the Community Conversations Toolkit for downloadable guides for facilitating discussions about this project.)

Make It Happen

The young people, educators, and parents we spoke with shared incredible examples of healing-centered, restorative responses to harm in their school communities, as well as visions of the world we must keep fighting for…. This is what restorative justice looks like, when it’s On Our Terms.

Build School Practice.

Here are specific ideas about how school communities can respond to harm restoratively, as a community.

  • Create a simple, accessible process for anybody in the school community to request a circle, with designated people and time to respond to those requests.
  • Determine who in the community is the best fit for facilitating each response to harm (one-on-one preparation conversations, mediations, circles) based on a range of factors, including relationships, facilitator strengths, capacity, and availability.
  • Develop clear steps for before, during, and after circles, to support transparency and follow-up. This may include, but is not limited to: sharing facilitation questions with participants before circles (get consent); asking about the needs of those involved and mapping out potential supports (center healing); determining the best-suited facilitator and support people (build on relationships); and designating accountability partners and key dates for follow-up on action steps after a circle is complete (seek transformation).
  • Discuss privilege, oppression, and other relevant institutional or structural forces in preparing and facilitating restorative circles, considering the ways in which these structural forces and related personal experiences may be important to understanding the specific instance of harm, and for those involved to feel their experiences are being acknowledged and taken seriously.
  • Convene as a school quarterly to expand on possibilities of non-punitive responses to harm that have shown to be supportive of student, staff, and community growth. This should be facilitated by restorative justice leaders within the school, and should be both public to the community and transparent in planning its responses.

Lily T. (she/her), school staff: We have only one kid who’s Jewish in the whole school. He’s also the only white kid who is not Albanian…. it wasn’t from the student, but other students wanted to do a tier two circle after the violence at synagogues. And a bunch of our Jewish staff showed up and they were so thankful that our students have chosen to create that healing space for the whole community and that they got to talk about things. And also our Jewish staff wanted specifically to talk about the issue of racial solidarity. And how there are parallels between the violence, and that was really meaningful for our kids to hear some of their Jewish elders.

Demand Policy Change.

Here are some key policies needed to better support school communities in responding to harm restoratively.

  • Create citywide resource guides of neighborhood-based support services for youth and families that are not attached to systems of policing, surveillance, or family separation, to be used in support of response to harm circles
  • Provide discretionary funding to schools to support next steps resulting from restorative responses to harm, including accessing social and emotional supports for those who have been harmed and those who have caused harm.
  • Establish data systems for tracking responses to harm and other school issues that better reflect restorative processes and a non-punitive approach