The Power of Words – Restorative Justice

The fairly new approach to student misbehavior that school officials say is taking the long approach toward improving campus culture.

Ziv Galpaz, Staff Writer

Fights break out nearly every day. Students participate in gang activity. Bathroom vandalism is a daily occurrence.

Since the return to learning post pandemic, a new wave of violence and inequity has hit Branham’s halls.

Not only at Branham, but The National Center for Education Statistics reported that public schools beleive the closures due to the pandemic had a negative impact on student behavior.

The school has seen an increase in the number of disciplinary actions defined as those in which harm is done to either students, campus, or themselves. There were 145 incidents by the end of the first semester, outpacing the 238 incidents for the 2021-2022 school.

“Situations are happening faster than we can stop them” said Todd Harrison, one of Braham’s assistant principals, in regards to the growing presence of violence and illegal activities happening at Branham. 

Harrison said that rather than talking it out, students are resorting to violence, in words or deeds.

“It’s really disappointing,” said Harrison in regards to the general lack of respect that they’ve been observing.  

He said that students have been cutting classes, using derogatory words toward each other and to teachers and destroying school property.

However, for Harrison and other administrators, as well a growing number of staff, discipline is only part of the solution. The longer—and sometimes tougher—answer for them is to improve the culture, and a large part of it is through restorative justice.


How it works

In California, restorative justice has been a new approach to disciplinary action. Though indigenous groups have been practicing it for thousands of years, its system is rooted in prison reform.

Rather than suspending or expelling students, the focus is on mediation and prevention. Conversations center around restoring the relationship between the student, teachers and community.

On paper, this is appealing, because it focuses on the larger issues behind student conduct.

However, administrators say that it is often found difficult to implement fully because cooperation needs to come from both sides. 

Restorative justice works like this. Let’s say two students are involved in a fight over a disagreement. After the students are identified, a restorative circle will begin. It involves an administrator and the two individuals involved. If it’s needed, parents are involved.

Administrators will focus on how both students will mend their relationship. What angered you? What frustrated you? What is making you act out in this way?

If students buy in to the process, assistant principal Victoria Waite, who is a strong advocate of the program, the discourse will improve.

Waite describes a recent disagreement between two students who went through a restorative circle.

“No, they’re not going to walk out being BFFs,” she said, “but they walked out and never had another issue.”

However, it’s not easy to engage with students when they’re not cooperative. The idea of restorative justice is very new, and the process can be started through restorative circles in the classroom.

Teachers such as English teacher Alanna Ojeda and science teacher Ryan Matthews have been proponents of it and regularly practice community circles in their classroom. Ojeda has also spoken about its merits in gaining a snapshot of how students are feeling on any given day.


Manpower in short supply

While administrators and teachers say that restorative justice needs time to grow and develop so that students feel a sense of community, they say that it is difficult to apply when administrative manpower is in short supply. Branham is the largest school in the district, but has the same number of administrators as smaller schools.

“Often things are happening so fast that when we start a restorative circle, we don’t have the time or resources to complete it,” said Harrison, who had broken up two fights the day he spoke to the Bear Witness. “And most often than not both parties are willing to talk and find a solution.” 

Waite said that when restorative justice is used effectively, it is very impactful. 

“Restorative justice is about taking ownership and responsibility for your actions and what you did to harm someone else,” Waite said. 


Post-pandemic student misbehavior a national trend 

Though disciplinary action is increasing at a disturbing rate at Branham, it reflects a larger statewide and nationwide problem.

A post-pandemic, George Floyd world has created a once-in-a-generation shift in attitudes toward authority figures and has exposed a sense of isolation that actions don’t have consequences. 

When school returned, administrators say that student behavior has worsened, which makes the job harder for them.

“Students often fight on campus because they know it will be broken up, because outside of school weapons and other dangers are involved,” Harrison said. 

Discipline is also doled out unequally among ethnic groups. Education Week reported that 47% of incidents have occurred among Hispanic students and behind that white students at 34%.

However, neither race or economic disparities seem to be the primary culprit, rather the rapid growth of the school and also lack of resources according to Waite. 

Waite attributes a large part of the problems on campus to be related to student connectedness. 

“As someone who has worked as an educator in the last eight years, I noticed in the last few the sense of connectedness and community being a struggle for many. When you don’t feel connected to your community you are more likely to harm your community,” she said.

Many students do not feel a part of the Branham community, due to the separation from their campus community for awhile during the COVID-19 pandemic. A study released early February by Stanford and the Associated Press revealed that there are 240,000 schoool-aged students who have not re-enrolled during or since the pandemic.


Taking the long view

With three administrators and a handful of student resource officers, Waite said that it is impossible to address everyone’s needs. However, with disciplinary issues slowing down, she said can address the students who need help more easily. 

“I know their names now,” she said. “I know students on campus so I can come up. Yeah, I know your name. I’m talking to you right now. Please make sure you stop doing what you’re doing,”

Though vandals have been regularly wreaking havoc on bathrooms and disciplinary action has increased, for administrators, it seems the culprit is the lack of community.

“I think the disciplinary problems on campus are rooted in a problem we have in humanity currently, not just at Braham but in that we don’t often understand the true powers of our words in our society,” Waite said. 

Waite and Harrison say that the steps that can be taken to help create the sense of community at Branham is through preventive restorative practices. 

“Restorative practices such as community circles can really form that connection between students and teachers and help create a safer environment” Waite said. 

While restorative justice cannot guarantee a safer environment, it focuses on the core of human interactions, trust. Once that trust is broken, it takes work to rebuild but that is the exact emphasis that restorative practices help, the restore the bond and trust to ensure a safer, stronger community.