Humans of Restorative Justice (HORJ) stories highlight the incredible individuals working to build an restore strong relationships in their communities.
When I heard the commotion, I grabbed my black radio and hurried quickly out of the Restorative Justice office just in time to see Javier (not his real name), a Junior student, punch in the plexiglass window on a hallway display case. The principal of our high school was standing nearby and several students and teachers had popped their heads out of doorways to see what was happening. Other support staff and I quickly walked Javier into our office to cool down and began talking with him and interviewing others to piece together exactly what had happened.
The facts of the incident were pretty straightforward and agreed upon by all, including Javier. He had been in the Main office and had just been informed that his schedule needed to be changed, apparently for the second time. The school was recently having to make schedule changes to ensure that everyone’s credits were on track for graduation, and these adjustments were causing stress to many students during these first few weeks of school. Javier was frustrated about his new schedule and he had stormed out of the office loudly protesting. The principal was standing near the door at the time and followed him out, trying to explain the necessity of the schedule changes. Javier turned to her and ended his loud rant with something like, “Don’t even talk to me, you’re a b---ch and I hate this F----g school!” right before turning to the large hallway display case and punching the plexiglass window. We were all grateful that this panel was not real glass and there were no injuries to his hand, but the display was damaged. These were the facts. But once we had Javier calmed down in the RJ office, he began to explain why this had happened and, as in many such cases, there were more layers to the incident than it might first seem on the surface.
I love telling people that I work as a ‘Restorative Justice Dean,’ A title that I pretty much made up for myself. My official role is simply Dean, a position that most people associate with the handling of student behavioral problems and the handing out of traditional forms of discipline such as detentions and suspensions. The dean’s office is where you would go in most public high schools when you were “in trouble.” In contrast, restorative justice is often associated with attempting to find alternatives to these traditional punishments, by holistically assessing a situation, seeing how the root causes might be alleviated to prevent future problems, creating a space for conversation and accountability, and looking for ways to creatively repair harm to community relationships. So, by combining these two titles into one ‘RJ Dean’ role, it often made people stop and think. In a school like ours, with a great deal of conflict, the title also captured the complex needs and desires of the school community for emotional support as well as for order and safety. I was proud to be a part of this new effort at the school and grateful that Javier had the time and space to fully unpack his side of what had just happened.
After talking with Javier, it became clear that this incident was not so much about the schedule change, but that he still held on to a lot of resentment from events of the previous year. Apparently, he had made some bad decisions and was not allowed to go on the end of the year field trip to an amusement park. He was heartbroken by this decision and felt that it was not fair to him, especially because his trip deposit was not returned. Because it had happened right at the end of the year, and before the school had fully began implementing restorative practices, this disappointment never was resolved for him. Javier told us, through streaming tears, that he had “done so much for this school,” had “decorated almost every school dance,” and “could not believe they were treating me this way.” He felt betrayed by a school, and a principal, he once loved. The schedule change was just a catalyst at the beginning of the new year that allowed this eruption of anger and emotion.
On one hand, Javier had clearly broken two of our school’s ‘Core Values,’ Respect and Safety. But it was also evident that the real root of the issue was that his relationship to the principal and the school was greatly damaged from the previous year. He could have faced a traditional punishment such as detention or possibly a suspension, but that would probably do nothing to fix the way he felt towards the school community, and his anger and hurt would keep bubbling over into more incidents. It seemed clear to us that we needed to do a restorative conference, a gathering of the relevant stakeholders in the matter to make sure that all people were heard and we found ways to repair and move forward for good. Javier listed a few staff members, including the principal, that he associated with the field trip decision, and a friend that he wanted in the circle for emotional support. We also invited a teacher and a school secretary/ parent coordinator that knew Javier well. In addition, I was there to facilitate the circle along with the other school dean. We did some pre-conference meetings and eventually gathered these people together for the circle. All participants were aware of the school trip issue the year prior and understood that before Javier could take ownership of his actions in the hallway he needed to be heard about this. And so, in that circle, he was heard. All of the staff members involved (I was not at the school the previous year) stood by the decision to ban him from the trip, but the principal did express that it had been a very hard decision, and one that needed to be made quite quickly on the day of the trip itself, based on a concern for the safety of another student with which Javier was having conflict. There was not a real resolution here but Javier got to say how betrayed he felt and how much he felt he had given to the school. It opened up a touching moment between Javier and the school secretary, where he said “I always saw you as kind of a mother to me, and after that I just felt like you turned your back on me.” To which the woman responded “Javier, I still love you. Even though I was not happy with your choices, you are young and I know that you still have a lot of learning to do. If you want to help us decorate the next dance I would love to have you be a part of it.” The principal stated that even though she stood by her decision of last year, she agreed that it could have been handled better and explained more clearly to him. She expressed how much she liked Javier and all the talents that she recognized in him. The mood of the circle began to soften and it seemed that he could now begin to own his outburst in the hallway and work to repair relationships with these staff members, relationships that he clearly missed having.
Javier was now apologetic for his outburst in the hallway and was asked to list the people he thought were most affected by it. He settled on the principal, whom he had insulted, and the other students in the hallway classes, whom he had disturbed and perhaps scared. We then went around the circle stating a few positive qualities we each saw in Javier (and he in himself), to help us find areas of strength that he could draw from to repair the harm. I love this part of the circle, seeing a young person receive so much praise at a time where they are also being held accountable for a poor decision; it serves to separate the harmful choices from the essential good of the person. One skill that kept emerging was Javier’s artistic ability. This also related to the schedule issues he was having, as he no longer had an art class this semester. He jumped at the suggestion to use this passion to make things right with the community.
To address the damage to the display case, which was currently empty, Javier agreed to design an artistic display. In this way, he felt he would be adding something that would show respect to the whole school. To repair the relationship with the principal, he offered to draw a portrait of her, while sitting with her and talking. The circle agreed to these proposals, set due dates, and scheduled the days after school that he would stay to work on completing these items. I knew this aspect would please some of the more traditionalists on the staff who were still a bit leary about the effectiveness of RJ. The fact that the afterschool work on these items would look somewhat like after school detentions, and would help them to see that he was not “just getting away with cursing out a staff member and breaking a window.” It would take time for some to accept that the detentions and suspensions of the past were not very effective and that this new way of dealing with conflict could go a long way in improving the school culture.
Simply put, the work that Javier did to fulfill his contract absolutely blew me away. For the 3x6 foot display case he created a colorful diorama of the Hollywood hills, replacing the HOLLYWOOD sign with letters spelling out our school name instead. Each letter was cut from paper and standing up by toothpicks on a large hill made of carefully crumpled construction paper. It was beautifully done. From the ceiling of the case was a collection of white origami cranes hanging in the air from fishing wire. He spent hours working on this, and it showed!
The portrait of the principal happened in one 45 minute session, where Javier sketched her while they talked and she worked on sending emails at her computer. She was satisfied that it did not take much time away from her many responsibilities but still allowed her to be a part of the RJ process and re-connect with Javier. The beautiful portrait now hangs, framed, behind her desk.
- David- Bronx, NYC
(Humans of Restorative Justice stories are written and edited by David Levine based on interviews with real-world practitioners.)
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