Transcription of the episode “Restorative justice: Cultivating cohesive communities”

[00:00:15] Jon M: Hi, I’m Jon Moscow. 

[00:00:17] Amy H-L: And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our topic today is restorative justice in schools. We’re joined by Sarah Eblen and Reginald Berry, Jr., former middle school classroom teachers who now coordinate the program in Kansas City, Missouri Public Schools. Welcome, Reggie and Sarah.

[00:00:37] Sarah E: Hi. Thank you. 

[00:00:39] Reggie B: Hello. Thanks for having us. 

[00:00:41] Jon M: Please tell us about your journey from teaching to overseeing a system-wide restorative justice program.

[00:00:49] Reggie B: Yes. It started with an eighth grade group we were working with. Sarah was teaching English and I was teaching social studies. And these were a special group of kids that are grandfathered into a high school in which they didn’t have the social-emotional program needed for their developmental needs at that time. So we collaborated and created homeroom and an advisory where we could work as a collective — building relationships, working on how to resolve conflict within our own spaces, which was important, especially when we saw in the classroom there were–in the school, there were a lot of other things happening. And there were the big kids and there were just these smaller impressionable babies that just needed some extra care. And so with that, we started looking into how could we further develop as educators and working with our young ones. And we stumbled upon restorative practices, which we found was something that we were doing this whole time, but something we were able to name and, and build off of.

And with that, we started working with a community that’s felt the same way, that believed in social , that believed in the social emotional care of our students. And with that, it grew into a whole school initiative directed by Sarah and I. And with that, it took traction and attention from the wider community in our district.

And today we are now the district coordinators for Kansas City Public Schools, working with 12 other great individual coordinators. We call them restorative justice coordinators at each of these schools. And it’s been great coaching them and it’s been a great journey with us. 

[00:02:36] Amy H-L: And what are the logistics of the program now?

[00:02:40] Sarah E: Yeah, so as Reggie said, we had no idea that we would be in 12 schools when we were standing in classrooms five years ago, dreaming of a better culture for our eighth graders. But now we lead a restorative justice residency program. We onboard all of our restorative justice coordinators through a very intensive program to make sure that they feel supported, and then we continue that support through weekly coaching. And we also provide restorative justice practice training for all KCPS teachers as they’re onboarded into their schools, and then a follow-up training. They learn how to implement circles in their classrooms. So day-to-day, we’re coaching restorative justice coordinators who are coaching their staffs, all to bring a more restorative model to all of our schools.

And then at the district level, it’s looking at policy. Two years ago, we redid our code of conduct to be more restorative, took out words threatening, took out punitive offenses, things that were levied against students of color to make our code of conduct more equitable. And so it’s an on-the-ground approach met with the policy and code approach. 

[00:04:00] Amy H-L: What kind of training do the teachers receive? 

[00:04:05] Reggie B: We start off all of our trainings and our staff with the background of restorative practice, theory, and really focusing on the “why.” Why are we doing this work, to put in better context. And that’s what differentiates us from, I think, other initiatives is there is an explicit “why” we are doing this. We’re looking for equity. We’re looking for justice within our communities. They take that first training to work on that paradigm shift, in which we are leaving this punitive basis we all come from and been grown up in and honed into to a more restorative approach. So that’s round one. 

And then round two is, let’s get into some practice. Let’s look at how we could use restorative circles to build community and use that same practice to deal with conflict when a conflict does arise. That’s where we start. And then as was mentioned earlier, with our coordinators and ourselves, we do continuous education with all of our staff members throughout the district to give them more tools and which are aligned with the mythology in which we practice. 

[00:05:17] Jon M: What are some of the major tools that you use, and can you describe them a little bit? For example, what exactly is a restorative circle? What does it look? 

[00:05:26] Sarah E: Yeah, absolutely. We got really lucky to have a training partner in our city. That was a huge part of our success. We trained with the Center for Conflict Resolution and they train all of our teachers. So as we started to create this movement, we were lucky to find that partner.

[00:05:41] Jon M: I’m sorry, who was that partner? 

[00:05:42] Sarah E: The Center for Conflict Resolution. Some of the main practices we look at, we think about them through a tiered approach. A lot of people think about restorative justice and think right away it’s conflict resolution, but 80% of restorative work is community building. You can’t bring someone back into a community after they’ve caused harm if they don’t feel connected to that community. So 80% of the work we do is connective community work. That can be a connection circle, that can be temp checks in the classroom, that can be really intentional relationship-building through do nows that ask relational questions. But the whole idea is bringing our students into a space where it’s relationships first, rule one. Second, we care more about the relationships than we do about the rules because we’re harming people, not rules. Rules are made up, but people can be hurt. 

And then that second part of it is thinking, when those lower level harms occur, how do we teach students how to make that right. So that’s when you get into some of these harm circles. And circles in restorative practices is when you sit in a space. There’s a talking piece that everyone gets a chance to speak in circle. They’re often pieces in the middle of the circle that are representative of what’s important to the people in the circle. And there are rounds. So there might be three to four rounds where you ask questions. And those questions vary on what type of circle is being conducted. In a relationship building circle. The question could be as inviting or silly as in your next life, would you rather be a dog or a cat? So sometimes the circle questions can just be silly, inviting, and then when you get into these harm circles, it can be what did you do to make it better and what did you do to make it worse? And really asking our students to take that cognitive load to answer that question, because in education, we’re so used to answering that question for them. So restorative circles are just an equalizing of whose voice is in the room. And where there’s student and staff voice just as equal. 

And then a lot of those practices are student conferences. Those conferences just look a little bit different than we’re used to hearing conferences go, once again, putting more cognitive load on the student — what happened, who was harmed, and what can we do to make it right. As staff, those are the only, however many words I just said, that’s, that’s all we have to say. The students do that heavy lifting.

And then once we get into that third degree of harm, where maybe there was some separation, they had to be removed from the space, how we bring our students back into is really, really important because that isolating practice has put students at risk of the school to prison pipeline for 50 years, so we have to do it differently. How we bring them back can be really intensive. We’ve had a conference that lasted three and a half hours where family members, coaches, staff members, all sat in circle for three hours. And the last hour was just planning, how do we bring this student back to where everyone feels safe and that student feels supported and wanted back in the community. So it’s just a different way of thinking about community and conflict. 

[00:09:00] Amy H-L: When you’re talking about community, especially with high school students who are in a different room for every subject, where does the community occur? Where are the relationships built? 

[00:09:13] Reggie B: The community is built within the classroom. We want to give those settings the autonomy to build their own culture. And we have leaders within that and which is, are our instructors give them to believe in the tools that they are part of a, a community. They’re not, uh, above one. They’re working with students. They’re not working for them, they’re not working, doing things to them. But that is a reciprocal relationship. It’s the same, it’s the same message. We are working together. So it starts as that [inaudible] microcosm, and that’s where if we go back to our story, we built that own little micro. , uh, community within a larger school. And that was we able to build out that way. So it starts in that classroom. 

It goes back to individuals as well. When we talk about these one-on-ones we have with students, we’re giving them those tools and an opportunity to sometimes repair harm, and allowing them to be welcomed back to a community. That’s the, the intent. It’s building from from singular individuals, to classrooms, to wider school, and then the wider community itself.

[00:10:28] Amy H-L: How has the program impacted student behavior over time? 

[00:10:34] Sarah E: Yeah, so we can speak a lot to Southeast High School where we started because we’ve had a restorative justice coordinator there since 2018, and so you have this long set of data quantitatively. We saw student discipline decrease from 2017 where there was no coordinator to 2020 before the pandemic. We saw student recidivism drop 54 percent. So that’s students who have five or more discipline reports, which told us that we’re intervening in ways that are more intentional and that are working. A lot of our interventions before implementing restorative practices were ISS and OSS, and then student would repeat harm over and over again. 

[00:11:18] Jon M: ISS is in school suspension and OSS is out of school suspension? 

[00:11:22] Sarah E: 

Yes, we teachers love to speak in acronyms. That was a big number we saw was just that drop in students who had five or more discipline reports. But also our students speak to this idea that the school felt safer and therefore they can create and be more students in a space.

We had some students who were there from seventh to twelfth grade, so they got to see the entire production of restorative practices in their time there. And they’ll tell you, when I was in seventh grade, I didn’t always feel safe going to school. And then when I was a senior, not only did I feel safe, but I also felt ,hey, if I wanted to create a club, I could. If I needed to talk to another student before walking into class, I had a safe place to go talk to them and work through something before we went and sat in class together. It really became something that the students owned. And I think that’s the magic of it. The numbers are great, but when students say, I would rather be at school, I’m more likely to come to school. I enjoy school more. I know our numbers increase when we look at our qualitative studies, students who felt there were adults at the school who cared about them, that almost doubled. To me, that’s what’s important. Because you stay at school, staff and students, you stay at schools where you feel valued. And I think that’s why this work is so important. Because we need teachers right now, and feeling valued, it’s gonna keep you to stay. Because it’s not the paycheck. 

[00:12:57] Jon M: It sounds as though you’ve had a tremendous reduction in discipline issues. Are there still discipline disparities between groups or between students with special ed, individualized education programs, IEPs, and the general student population?

[00:13:14] Sarah E: Yeah. When we looked at disparities three years ago in Kansas City Public Schools, the biggest disparities we saw in our students who identify as Black are SPED students and students who do not conform to their specific gender norms, so anyone who identifies outside of whatever gender was assigned at birth. Restorative practice has been significant in closing those gaps, but they still. It’s important to remember that this work takes time, but I think as long as we’re seeing decreases in those equity gaps, it means that we’re on the right path. It takes this work in combination with a lot of other work, and luckily we’re in a district that’s doing that. Our teachers receive bias training, part of their onboarding. Our teachers also receive trauma awareness training, but it’s all a part of this big package of onboarding teachers better into a system so that that system is more equitable for students in the long run.

[00:14:16] Jon M: You were talking about the effect on student behavior. What effects have you seen on teachers’ practice?

[00:14:27] Reggie B: As a teacher, former teacher, one thing, we always want to be a part of the whole process. If I have an issue with a student or a classroom, sometimes that student will leave the classroom and come back in the next day or within the hour or 30 minutes. Then you’re not too sure what happened, and that could be frustrating. You want something to happen, and, and so what we’ve done is invited them into the process, so they have their voices being heard. They are able to speak with these students about how that altercation might have impacted them, and what they need from them to move forward and vice versa. The student gets to voice their own needs. But that’s the difference, just being a part of that process. So it allows them to know what’s happening. And when we’re looking at them being part of it, we’re realizing that they are able to change their mindset of what accountability looks like.

I think that’s the most important part. They want, where the go-to is out, the go-to is dismissal, but now it’s accountability means no, you are going to understand my needs and meet those needs as we move forward. And just trying to just basically change that mindset of what accountability looks like and inviting them to be a part of that process.

[00:15:45] Sarah E: Yeah. And we’ve seen that the success of that is the more teachers engage in that, the less punitive practices we’re seeing. The last full year, Kansas City Public students were in school before the pandemic was 2018-2019. So in comparing our 2021-2022 data to that last year, we were all in school, all 12 restorative justice schools decreased their suspensions. So we know that as in teacher, when teachers engage, we reduce punitive practices and we keep students engaged in the school building. So as we keep moving forward, it’s just pulling more and more staff members into the fold because once you sit in a restorative circle and see the effect that can have on relationships, it’s really hard to go back to the old way where you just exile a student.

[00:16:36] Amy H-L: Sarah, you mentioned that there’s a revised code of conduct that works in conjunction with the program. Could you describe that? 

[00:16:45] Sarah E: Yep. So during the pandemic, we were one of the school districts to be home for an entire year before bringing students back in. So we used that time as a district to redo our code of conduct with an equity and restorative and trauma-sensitive lens. And for us that meant looking at a few things. The first was subjective offenses, things that could be coded and considered by a teacher. Three different teachers can make three different calls on it. One we saw that we took out was defiance of authority because that could be considered something different by every teacher. And that was a huge contributor to our equity gap because defiance of authority was levied at Black students more than any other population. 

And so looking at these subjective offenses, taking them out, making them more clear, looking at punitive responses. Do we have more interventions or do we have more punitive responses? So we put in a lot of interventions before any sort of punitive practice, ISS or OSS. So really making sure we’re engaging and intervening instead of just kicking out. And then really looking at the words we’re using. We were one of the few school districts in the metropolitan area to have gang in our code of conduct, which was really racially coded because we have one of the highest Black populations in the city. And it reflected this old idea that our students, if they’re hanging out in large groups, could be considered gangs. We also took out the word threatening that was in our code of conduct 19 times. So really doing a deep, deep dive of what effect did our old code of conduct have on students. 

And students led that work. They were the ones looking into it. We had a student review team and the quotes from that. It’s amazing because they are so much more insightful than as adults we are. Because we’re used to it, so we don’t take a second look at it. We had a student say, “If you keep calling me threatening because we use the language that’s in the code, I act threatening, so is this self-fulfilling prophecy? But if you say , Hey, I’m looking out for you and I want to intervene on your behalf and I’m worried about you, the conversation totally changes.”

So that is our protection of students and staff to make sure that we’re intervening restoratively. But there’s been a lot of questions because it’s hard to change something and our, when our go-to response, when the only vocabulary we have as teachers or principals or support staff is “get out.” With a code of conduct that has 15 interventions, you also have to teach vocabulary, like how can I help? What can we do? How can we repair this harm? So it’s been skill teaching with policy, because we never want to just implement policy and then leave people high and dry without the skills. 

[00:19:50] Jon M: How do you deal with teacher or principal turnover as you’re establishing these cultures in the school? How do you keep the continuity? 

[00:20:00] Reggie B: Important when starting this initiative and creating the restorative justice coordinator position is dedicating a staff member in each school to hone in the knowledge of the practice and be able to coach and train and build up their initiative within their own schools. So that allows some longevity and some consistencies within that. So this is a unique in itself that we just have this one position dedicated to doing the work. So as we see teachers moving in and out, or new admin come into a school, it’s already written for them. The processes, the procedures are already there.

And we got to see it at at the high school working out. We had new administration come in. It’s an easier transition when we’re saying, well, this is what we’ve been doing. This is the layout, this is the blueprint, these are the procedures. And it was easier for them to adapt too, because it’s already created for them. So that helped down the line. 

[00:21:04] Amy H-L: The program seemed to have an impact outside of school as well as inside. 

[00:21:11] Sarah E: Yeah, that’s our next push is to figure out quantitatively the effect, I think. Story-wise, absolutely. We have students who come back and tell us, “I’m better in my job at Subway because I learned conflict resolution skills. When I’m working with my coworkers, I know how to say you seem overwhelmed instead of why are you talking to me like that? ” There’s these soft skills that our students are gaining that make them really strong in every space they move into, in every hat they wear. 

It’s also really great because a lot of our student leaders who have done this work have reengaged in this work in the community. We have a student who graduated Southeast two years ago, who now works at a re-entry center doing restorative work. So I think once you’ve engaged with it, whether it’s just the skill of being calmer, or we talk a lot about the skill of restating a question, these conflict resolution skills that they’re taking into their everyday life with their families. We have a student who says they do mediations between their two siblings.

And then there’s these bigger stories of where they liked it so much, it made so much sense to them, that they found jobs to keep engaging in it. That’s been really impactful, but it is our goal to figure out how can we link this to other community efforts and how can we see if this is helping us reduce violence in our city if this is helping us build more community engaged students. But that’s definitely the next push.

[00:22:43] Jon M: Do you have situations where students are getting one message from home about how to settle disputes and another from school, and how do you work with that?

[00:22:55] Sarah E: I think we all have gotten different messages about what it means to settle disputes. I think we’ve all gotten the wrong message, and I think it’s easy for people to say, well, it’s only a certain demographic that gets these wrong messages, or they get these violent messages. But we’ve all gotten wrong messages. We’ve all grown up either conflict avoidant or we wait for it to bubble up until we rage. Or the second we get mad, we go out someone. None of us were taught strong conflict resolution skills. And so when we bring anyone in, when we talk to staff members who are in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, they’re getting wrong messages about conflict and what it means to engage. So yes, there’s some disconnect in what they’ve been taught, but there’s a disconnect in what we’ve all been taught, and I think that’s what makes this work so exciting. We’re not teaching it to students. We’re all learning together and we’re all undoing this paradigm that tells us that to be strong is to stand up for yourself and go as hard at somebody as you can. To be soft and to be kind and to be empathetic is requires so much more strength than to yell at someone at a grocery store.

[00:24:22] Jon M: So I was just thinking, I mean, I think what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I’m just thinking of a situation where maybe a student’s in a fight or something, and perhaps particularly, say a younger student, where the parent comes in and says, look, I’ve taught my kid that he or she has to stand up for themselves and if somebody hits them or whatever that, that they should hit back. And obviously the child is hearing one message from , the parent about how to take care of themselves and then knowing that the school is saying something different. So I’m just curious what that conversation looks like, how you would help the parent understand what it is you’re trying to do and why it may be different from what they’re saying, but is not undermining.

[00:25:13] Reggie B: You come into this with understanding. When they’re in the setting, when you’re working with parents, you invite them into the process. The process is allowing them to hear out the voices of the other community, how they’re impacted, so even when the harm is made, there always is some repair that’s needed. So when we get in these community circles and our parents are upset and they want something happening and something to be done because they feel their child has been wronged, we are there to meet those needs, but also we get to discover what else are the our needs of our community. And so everybody wants to be protected, and with this we assure them that your child is protected, you are gonna be protected so this doesn’t type of thing doesn’t happen again. So in short, it’s the consistency of making sure that everybody involved is just being heard and that we are collectively working on how to repair those harms. And when we have parents come in and they see that this is what we’re doing to protect their children, they relax, they engage, they feel that, oh, y’all are really looking after my child, and I don’t have to be so defensive, and I don’t feel I have to resort to maybe some of these extremes because of the safety of their child.

[00:26:36] Sarah E: So yeah, that collective effort brings ease to our parents. I think Reggie said it well. The skill that you’re referring to. I think people think, oh, you want to reteach a skill or a thought pattern that might be if this, then this. If someone hits me, I hit them back. That is a thought pattern. So you just take it back one step and you say , if I’m in conflict with someone, I engage early to make sure that that conflict doesn’t get to a physical. So then that’s the mindset we’re teaching and that’s the mindset we work with parents to reinforce is, yeah, we don’t want it to get to a stage where anyone is fighting. And there’s rare occasions where it gets to that, but we’re teaching students it feels better to intervene early and have that conversation and figure out that it was a miscommunication than it does to physically hit someone and then have to go through that on the back end. So if it’s just teaching a thought pattern, but I think people think the only alternative to, if someone hits me, I hit them back, is if someone hits me, I don’t hit them back, which isn’t the case. It’s just thinking back two steps. 

[00:27:51] Jon M: Thanks.

[00:27:52] Amy H-L: I suspect that many of our listeners are thinking, this sounds awesome, but where did you get the funding? 

[00:27:59] Sarah E: Yeah, we thought the same thing. We thought this would be awesome, but where do we get the funding? So when we were in the classroom, we had the right people in the city. I don’t know if people always think of Kansas City as a restorative city, being in the middle of the country, but we had the right people in our city, the right people at the table, at the district level, the right people in our school. And we had an amazing principal who said, I’m willing to lose teachers, which as you guys know, is a hard cut for any school. It was six years ago, and especially is now Jessica Bassett who said, okay, I’m, I’m willing to give you guys the green light to seek funding. So our first two years were supported by the Kaufman Foundation, which is a very progressive grant funding organization in Kansas City, Missouri. And then two years were funded by the Henry and Marion Block Foundation. And then the district picked up funding these past two years. And then we were lucky enough to work with the Center for Conflict Resolution, which also had some funding to get this training off the ground. So it’s not, cheap work by any means.

It’s cheap to do it in your classroom. You can learn skills and do them in your classroom, which is where we started, but it was very much a community effort. A lot of people in the community had to say, this is what’s best for kids and we’ll support it, whether that means giving up teachers, or putting money forward or putting space forward, or giving up class time for community circles. So there was some financial support, but I think even more importantly, there were people who green lighted something that they had no idea if it was going work or not. 

[00:29:45] Amy H-L: Where can listeners get more information about restorative justice training?

[00:29:52] Reggie B: I would start with the National Association of Community Restorative Justice. They work in all the spheres in RJ. So what does that look in the community and schools and private sectors and such? When it comes to education, we looked at the Oakland Unified School District. They have led, and they’re the pioneers of this work. So we really appreciate what they have done, because if it wasn’t for them, we really wouldn’t have known how to catapult our initiative. But most cities have their own organizations that do community conflict resolution work like our partner, the Center for Conflict Resolution. You might not hear it by name. It might not be the restorative justice organization of KC, but they’re out there. And there’s plethora groups on your social media that speak on restorative practices in the classroom or restorative justice in general. So the information that’s out there, the community is ever growing. So, yeah, jump on the train because it is rolling. I definitely feel, even within these last six years, seven years, the growth of this community and the strength in which they are impacting their cities and their states. Think of Denver. Denver has a pretty robust initiative as what they’re doing in their school district, but also state legislation that they’re doing there. So it’s there. It’s accessible even more today. 

[00:31:25] Sarah E: I’d say one of the most exciting things we discovered when we started this work six years ago was that no one’s resource hoarding in education. Everyone who’s doing this work wants what’s best for students. So there were so many people we just blind emailed to say, hey, can you help us? And they sent us resources and links and the best trainings they’ve been to. And we’re the same way. We will never turn down an email asking for help or wanting to jump on a zoom to brainstorm. So find practitioners and don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help, because we have had a hundred percent batting average when it comes to finding people who are willing to collaborate in this work. 

[00:32:10] Amy H-L: Thank you Sarah Eblen and Reggie Berry of the Kansas City Public Schools. 

[00:32:16] Reggie B: Thank you all.

[00:32:17] Jon M: And thank you listeners. Check out our new video series, What Would YOU Do? A collaboration with Dr. Meira Levinson of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and EdEthics. Go to our website,, and click Video. In the first case study, a teacher using action civics faces pushback from a parent. The goal of the series is not to provide right answers, but to illustrate a variety of ethical viewpoints.

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