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Open Circles: Restorative justice practices spread in New Haven public schools

“I feel sad.”

“What color is that?”

The kindergartener—perching, like all the peers around him, on his bottom with incredible stillness for three in the afternoon—looks up at his teacher, who asked the question. 

“Blue,” he answers.

“I feel happy, and yellow is happy for me,” the next five-year-old in the circle says. The class has just read a book in which a cartoon heart adopted a different color for every emotion. The students were instructed to share the color of their current emotion as part of a “Friday feeling check-in.” The sharing student holds a popsicle stick with a stuffed owl hot-glued to the end. Happy Yellow Girl passes the owl, named Baby Earl, to her right. 

“I feel silly.”

“And what color would you use for silly?” the teacher asks. She leans forward, attentive and patient, showcasing the rhinestone brooch pinned to her collar.

“Light blue?” The girl, unsure, repeats the color the cartoon heart had ascribed to silliness. 

“But what color would you like to use?”

The student looks down at the mat for a moment. It takes time to consider what one truly thinks “silly” looks like, especially at five years old. “Mm. Gold.” 

These community-building circles take place twice a day in Michelle Paulishen’s class at the Edgewood School in New Haven. Each morning and afternoon, the students gather around a rug and divert their attention from academics to a social-emotional curriculum.

Training teachers to lead circle discussions like these is one of the ways in which New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) has implemented “restorative practices”—a set of social science tools that seek to improve and repair relationships between people and communities as well as create an empathetic school culture such as the one at Edgewood. The goal is to reduce suspensions and keep kids in school.

Some teachers and administrators in the district have been working to implement these strategies for five years now, but amid a lack of funding and district-wide buy-in, most of NHPS’ gains have been disparate–attributable to the work being done by a few passionate individual actors.

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Restorative practices is a community-centric philosophy that prioritizes mediation, accountability, and reconciliation. The strategy, long practiced among indigenous peoples, was popularized under the moniker “restorative practices” in the 1970s concurrent to growing sentiment in the Western world to challenge punitive justice systems. In the 1990s, school districts began experimenting with the approach as an alternative to traditional disciplinary measures. Ultimately, restorative practices focus on bringing communities together after a harm has occurred instead of punishing an individual.

According to Randy Compton, CEO of school consultation and training organization Restorative Solutions, describing these tools as merely restorative can be misleading. He describes it as a process by which communities “create a culture where harm no longer has to exist.” 

Paulishen’s daily community-building circles primarily serve the latter purpose by helping students learn how to articulate their feelings and describe them to others. At the Edgewood School, “restorative” circles, by contrast, only occur when a harm must be addressed and are often initiated spontaneously. Earlier that Friday, a first grader stepped off the bus in a huff to tell one of Paulishen’s students that she was “no good at math.” After taking note of her student’s uncharacteristic lack of confidence, Paulishen asked the student if she would be willing to have a circle with the first grader. The first grader, who was initially preoccupied with whether he was in trouble, recognized the impact of his words and offered a sincere apology by the end of the conversation.

Due to restorative practices’ relative nascence, studies show mixed results about its efficacy. According to a 2019 research review, every school studied saw decreases in overall suspension rates, but only schools in Oakland, California, and Denver observed a narrowing in the racial discipline gap.

According to Compton, these mixed results can be attributed to differences in implementation. Oakland and Denver administer the philosophy with persistence, recognizing that building a community among individuals of varying ages and backgrounds can be a three- to seven-year time investment. Other districts, however, fail to follow up after teachers are trained.

Sarah Miller, a volunteer with New Haven Public School Advocates, strongly supports restorative practices.

There are a wide variety of student needs, she explained, but restorative practices “addresses those needs all at once…. If it’s done well, it’s transformative.” Still, Miller cautioned, “it has to be done in the right way, and that takes commitment, and staff, and human time–and in a bureaucracy, human time costs money.” 

In her experience, although some detractors view restorative practices as “letting kids get away with nothing,” the opposition–if any–typically occurs after half-baked implementation leads to disappointing results. “I haven’t met anybody who’s really opposed to it and really understands the implementation,” said Miller.

“Our schools are cut to the bone,” she explained, “we’re doing this with our hands tied behind our backs.” 

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The initial catalyst for New Haven’s interest in restorative practices was a racial discipline gap. In a 2011–2012 Center for Civil Rights Remedies report, the district was cited as one of many across the country suspending black and Latino students at disproportionately high rates. Shortly afterward, newly-elected mayor Toni Harp made the issue central to her platform. This dedication led to the teachers union’s acquisition of a two-year, $300,000 grant intended for school discipline endeavors. 

The union used the grant to train 37 teachers at the International Institute for Restorative Practices, a graduate school in Pennsylvania, after which they would return home and spread the curriculum.

In 2015, the grant’s second and final year, Cameo Thorne, who had worked as a teacher in New Haven since 2000, took over as the district’s Restorative Practices Coordinator. Indeed, according to Miller, “Cameo is one person trying to implement a whole culture shift.”

According to Thorne, school board fluctuations stunted the district’s progress mere months after she took over, and the superintendency became a revolving door, with four leaders helming the school system in three years.

During this pause in progress, Thorne and Paulishen spearheaded implementation. Administrators at John S. Martinez School worked to completely phase out suspensions by 2017. That year, Elm City Montessori replaced in-school suspensions with a “reflection room,” where students are asked to sit in a comfortable space and have a conversation about their actions.

According to teacher Nakisha Cadore, classroom removal at the school has declined by 43 percent since the change.

But implementation has been on a school-by-school basis, Cadore said. “[Some] schools are more stuck in their ways as far as how they should be managing behavior, but other schools are getting on board.”

Cadore noted that many teachers and administrators across the district question whether students will change their behaviors in an absence of punishments that feel punitive. Some teachers also prefer the ability to remove or suspend a child when they are disruptive.

Miller has heard the explanation in discussions with teachers and parents: “You have teachers getting kicked, and bit, and even punched. You have really scary things happening. Not everywhere, but there are people who say, ‘If I have a kid bite me–they’re going to be punished. We’re not going to sit down and sing kumbaya.’”

This lack of buy-in among all schools and teachers led to the kinds of implementation issues the city still grapples with. In January, the New Haven Board of Alders Education Committee presented a report detailing a decrease in overall suspensions across the district, but persistent massive disparities in discipline across racial groups.

In the 2018-2019 school year, black students made up 60 percent of suspensions, Latino students 32 percent, and white students 7 percent. Black students only make up 19 percent of the district’s population, making them the only demographic in which the average percentage of out-of-school suspensions is higher than their percentage of total student enrollment.

Sheryl Wilson, a practitioner who writes about the relationship between the restorative justice movement and racial reconciliation, touts anti-racism training as a necessary supplement to other training.

“As a mother who raised two African-American sons in public schools around the country, it’s something I see,” Wilson said. “I’ve seen great teachers miss the fact that they look at my child differently. But if people are implementing these practices with the same lens they’ve been using their entire educational careers, then their biases may go unchecked.”

Wilson added that this is why implementation of restorative justice is not “one-and-done”—to find success, districts must continually evaluate their progress with professionals and readdress deeper issues. For a district like New Haven with a persistent racial discipline gap, this project may entail implicit bias training. Yet without whole-district buy-in and adequate funding, these issues may prove hard to shake.

Thorne is attempting to address this gap by writing restorative practices into the district’s Code of Conduct. She hopes the board will soon approve the revised version to protect against future leadership fluctuations. Thorne also seeks to implement a liaison in each campus. Martinez School, which isn’t suspending students of any race, has a trained climate professional on staff. The designated climate professional would be an existing member of each school’s staff who feels passionate about these strategies. This teacher would help others conduct circles and be the primary point-of-contact on campus if problems arise, and would in turn give Thorne time to focus on training.

Paulishen also believes racial sensitivity training is necessary for New Haven teachers. When her son, unable to read in the second grade, was not tested for Special Education programs until her explicit request, she noted the disproportionate number of black students tested for these programs. 

New Haven’s lack of funding has also trickled to youth programs outside of the school system. The Boys and Girls Club is scheduled to close, and Project Youth Court has officially disbanded after years of being under-funded. This court, run almost entirely by teenagers, offered restorative “contracts” to juveniles to help them clear their records. These contracts included tasks like essay-writing and community service, allowing teenagers on equal footing to negotiate the tasks necessary for a member of their community to be re-integrated. 

“People in New Haven talk the talk about restorative justice, but they don’t walk the walk,” said Jane Michaud, the former director of Project Youth Court. “It’s hard to get people to change their thinking on kids who misbehave. Restorative justice is really about support, compassion, and accountability.” 

Compton said more people in the field need to think critically about how they’re implementing the strategies if they seek to reduce racial disparities. “I think a lot of people go into this world thinking: Let’s reduce suspensions or reduce office referrals. We need to rethink what those goals are. We want to dive a little bit deeper to change the school culture and not just reduce discipline issues.”

It may appear ironic that individuals have assumed the responsibility of carrying out a philosophy rooted in community buy-in, but these individuals are dedicated to the results they’ve seen. Thorne flies from campus to campus conducting teacher trainings. Former youth court participants are banding together to revive the program. Kermit Carolina, the district’s supervisor of youth development, is mentoring young black boys in an after-school program of his own making. And in classrooms like Paulishen’s, kindergarteners ask for time in the “Contemplation Corner,” learning to talk through their emotions and relate to one another. 

“To be fair, public education— it’s underfunded and over-worked,” Thorne said. Everybody’s working more hours than their contract says. Everyone’s facing more batting-cage situations every day, and they come back to work and do it again and again. Building a community of people that understand one another is going to give teachers relief.” 

Thorne has seen many teaching philosophies fail in her 15 years of teaching, but with restorative strategies, she is starting to see results. In one instance, Thorne conducted a circle with two students involved in the stealing of a phone. When Thorne asked the student without a phone how he was most affected by the loss, the student said he was unsure whether walking to the bus stop would be safe without a way to communicate with people in his neighborhood. After being given the chance to fully understand the consequences of his actions, the other student offered more money to replace the phone than was requested.

Students see those successes. New Haven surveyed students at all levels who participated in circle discussions, and many felt they had a better understanding of their peers’ emotions and motives. Tamar Williams, a high school student at Career Regional, said the circles brought his class “together as a family.”

“We would open up to one another and see a different side of each person that isn’t often shown,” Tamar wrote in an email to The Politic. “At times it was emotional, at times it was all laughs. I appreciated it a lot, one of the best things I’ve done in a classroom.”

Although many members of Paulishen’s kindergarten class are just learning to write their names, they record their opinion of the circles by choosing to opt in, again and again. One student, concerned with the upcoming Thanksgiving break, looks up at his teacher.

“Will we still have a circle on a half-day?”