PS_SeEx RJ Holtham| Hillstrom (3)

Jeanette Holtham leads a restorative justice conference at Harrison High School. [Express photo/Zach Hillstrom]

Restorative practices making a difference in District 2

By Zach Hillstrom

The Southeast Express

When students at Harrison High School find themselves embedded in intense interpersonal conflict, they oftentimes end up sitting in a circle of office chairs next to the calming presence that is Jeanette Holtham.

For about the past five years, Holtham, the founding president of the nonprofit Youth Transformation Center, has been working with teachers and students in Harrison School District 2 to implement a variety of practices surrounding the concept of restorative justice (RJ).

In a traditional, punitive model of school discipline, the way justice is doled out is relatively simple: A student breaks a law or school rule and is punished based on the severity of their infraction. Sometimes that means a disciplinary referral, sometimes suspension and, in the most serious of non-criminal cases, expulsion.

But conflict, by nature, is not that simple.

So restorative practices don’t just look at the rule that was broken and determine a fitting punishment, they seek to repair the harm caused by conflict through an inclusive mediation process that identifies who has been affected, what harm has been done, and what might be done in the future to repair that harm.

One of the primary ways this is accomplished at the high school level is through restorative justice conferences — the mediation sessions where students find themselves next to Holtham in a circle of their peers, sitting across from those whom they’ve harmed.

“RJ gives kids a chance to see that they actually matter, and that a lot of the issues that they’re having, really don’t.” — Ivory Rounds, Harrison High School security guard

Building from the bottom up

The Youth Transformation Center has been teaching these concepts for the past 15 years and currently has a presence in 13 schools throughout District 2 — from elementary to high school — providing a range of restorative justice trainings and tools, which are catered to the age and maturity levels of the students who participate.

For the youngest of restorative practitioners, those in elementary school, the primary tool used by teachers is a preventative practice called Classroom Connection Circles, in which students are given a prompt on which to focus and discuss their thoughts and feelings about that prompt.

The practice encourages the students to self express, and also to listen to and respect one another.

“That’s probably one of the biggest keys, is making sure that every student gets a chance to speak, because that doesn’t always happen in a classroom setting,” Holtham said.

“To be able to give them that opportunity to have a voice, I think, is so important. Because lots of times these kids can slip through the cracks, otherwise.”

The goal of such circles is not necessarily to eliminate conflict, but rather to prevent future instances among students by giving them the tools they need to respond to interpersonal conflict in an appropriate manner.

Since implementing restorative practices in D-2, the Youth Transformation Center has seen significant results.

In the 2018-19 school year, D-2 administrative records showed 43 percent of students saw a reduction in discipline referrals in the 30 days following their RJ conference. In following up with teachers about 60 days after each conference, they reported that: 84 percent of students demonstrated improved behavior following the conference; 20 percent demonstrated an improved attitude; and another 40 percent showed improvement in classroom engagement.

Culture of conflict

The types of conflict that are most prevalent throughout D-2, particularly at Harrison High, are hardly different than those of any other high school.

As school security guard Ivory Rounds put it, “kids are kids.”

Rounds, who began working at Harrison in February after a 19-year career in security at Zebulon Pike Youth Services Center, said Harrison tends to see lots of verbal spats — which he said, these days, is more like digital conflict, since many of the interactions students have take place through outlets like text messaging and social media. But very rarely does the school see physical fights.

“Most of our conflicts are word-of-mouth,” Rounds said. “And if they do fight, the fights are over quickly.”

By Holtham’s estimation, those kinds of word-of-mouth disputes comprise between 80 and 90 percent of all RJ mediations and conferences.

“They’re about interpersonal conflicts, they’re about kids talking behind each others’ backs. It’s ‘he-said, she-said,’” Holtham said. “I just think it’s kids who are growing into young adults.”

Rounds is a relatively new figure around Harrison High, but he’s by no means new to RJ, as he was trained on the concept by Holtham and her husband and fellow trainer/RJ facilitator Andre Zarb-Cousin back when Rounds worked at Zebulon Pike. He coordinated the facility’s RJ program up until his departure.

“By the time I left there (RJ) was really embraced,” Rounds said. “It was like staff finally understood that the kids aren’t getting off. Because at first, a lot of staff felt like if the kids weren’t being punished, they weren’t learning anything. But eventually they understood that RJ is about relationships.

“If a kid has a relationship with another kid, chances are they’re not going to have conflict with that kid. If a kid has a relationship with the staff, chances are they’re not going to have conflict with that staff, and if they do they’re going to be apt to want to apologize and want to make it right.”

“To be able to give them that opportunity to have a voice, I think, is so important. Because lots of times these kids can slip through the cracks, otherwise.” — Jeanette Holtham, Youth Transformation Center founding president

Making it right

The concept of building relationships and promoting accountability to reduce conflict and recidivism is essentially a cornerstone of any RJ conference. It forces offending students to come face-to-face with the person they’ve harmed and consider all of the implications of their actions. But it also allows them to have a voice in the proceedings, tell their side of the story, and engage in a dialogue as to how the harm they caused might be repaired, rather than just receiving a school-imposed punishment.

“When you have that intervention, you start to meet these kids where they’re at,” Holtham said.

“That gives them the opportunity to know we are there to support them, but we are also there to hold them accountable.”

In any RJ conference, Holtham acts not as judge and jury, but rather serves as a conversation mediator. The real facilitators of the meeting are student leaders who have been trained in RJ practices and are called to RJ conferences to guide their fellow students through the process.

The general script of each conference seeks to answer questions like, “What happened?”, “What harm was done?”, “What can each of you do to take responsibility?”, and, “If you had to do it over, what would you do differently?”

A major facet of the conference structure is to identify who was harmed, and students are tasked with reaching an agreement on how to repair the harm.

That repair can take many forms — from accepting responsibility and saying “sorry” to monetary or other reparations.

“You can’t decide for them,” Holtham said, “but it needs to be something tangible that you can measure.”

Sometimes an RJ conference can help a student take accountability and avoid serious discipline. Other times, it can serve alongside punitive practices, such as when a student returns to school from suspension.

“There’s still harm that was never repaired and somebody may still be scared,” Holtham said. “Somebody may still be feeling uneasy about having this student come back to school. So we want to make sure that process of re-entry is smooth enough where kids can be civil with each other and they can recognize people make mistakes.

“So we need to talk about it and we need to help the student that has been kicked out of school, too. We need to help them to come back with honor, having done the right thing. And doing the right thing means sitting down and chatting among the stakeholders.”

“Suspending kids, it sends them home, but it doesn’t fix the relationship,” Rounds said.

“RJ gives kids a chance to see that they actually matter, and that a lot of the issues that they’re having, really don’t.”

“At the end of the day, we all go through stuff. Life happens, but it’s how we see the things that happen in life that can change the outcome.” — D’Angelo Maddrey, Harrison High School student leader

Student leadership

A critical component of what makes the RJ model successful at Harrison is the buy-in of an ever-growing stable of student leaders, who are chosen by their teachers and administrators for their leadership qualities and ability to take accountability.

By having student leaders facilitate each RJ conference, the mediation sessions take more of a conversational tone, rather than an authoritative one.

“Our part is just to guide them through the process, ask the questions and kind of be that student body for them,” said junior D’Angelo Maddrey, a student leader who has participated since his freshman year.

“Because if you’re just talking to an adult about some conflict, it’s like you’re sitting in the principal’s office again. But if you have  students there that you go to class with, students that are like you, it just creates a different environment. And that’s our role: to create that environment for them.”

Even when student leaders are not directly involved in an RJ conferences, the program encourages them to take an active role in diffusing the conflicts throughout their school.

“They expect us to still be that leader and just be open to other people and not closed-off,” said senior leader Kaija Johnson. “At this school, there’s a lot of people that have anger issues, and when people don’t listen to them, they just take that and build more anger.”

There are currently 28 student leaders at Harrison, and Holtham said more and more students are expressing interest as the program continues to grow.

For those who’ve already bought in to the concept of RJ, it seems to have had a profound effect on the way they view and handle conflict in their own lives.

“Over the summer I had a conflict with one of my closest friends. It was really just back-and-forth and then not talking to each other, but over time I made the realization that (he and I) should talk stuff out and that I shouldn’t lose a friendship over that,” Maddrey said. “So telling him things from my point of view … hearing the stuff that he was going through that I didn’t know about, through realizing all that, (we) were able to come to an understanding and be close again.

“I think (the program) teaches very good lessons. Because at the end of the day, we all go through stuff. Life happens, but it’s how we see the things that happen in life that can change the outcome.”

Related content: A transformative program
Meet the grantees