Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What's the justice system in your school?

We have all met teachers who think they show up at school simply to deliver math facts. They are technicians of the flash card, masters of  the smartboard. The drama of the kids is just distraction to the content-specialist educator.

I think the the drama, the social environment, is the important part. Teachers who ignore the socialization function are doing half a job. Kids benefit from the culture of the school community as much as they do from the designed curriculum. Sure there is stuff to learn, but kids are also at school to find out what they are good at, and how to hang out with others. The conflict that shows up is normal to life. And as events are processed, kids build their internal model of justice.

I've seen all sorts of justice systems in schools. They range from zero-tolerance, which works as badly in schools as it does in civil society, to hands-off, an unsafe variation on deliberate ignorance. There is trapdoor justice, where school officials throw up their hands saying that they control what happens in school but kids are on their own when they leave at the end of the day. There is also Justice Compartmentalization, where school trouble is the exclusive territory of disciplinary professionals and the psych staff. This lets content delivery specialists wash their hands of responsibility for troublemakers the minute they write out the referral slip.

As parents, we want the justice culture of the school to reflect our own ideals. Safety. Respect. Kindness. Self-reliance. What about capacity to mete out vengeance? Do we think about how we want the school to manage the mechanics of the Pecking Order? What should happen when conflict gets out of bounds, when there is deliberate victimization?

I favor a restorative justice approach to trouble in schools. Tough incidents create a network of obligations involving the person who authored an action, the person who received the action, and the school community at large. Dominic Barter's Restorative Circles process brings all three into the room, to work out the effects of what happened and sort out a way forward.  It's a whole-body experience, with people very close to each other experiencing the full emotional load surrounding the event. It's not a tribunal, where people can half attend, pay the fine in suspension days and plot an escalation. Barter developed his system in the favelas (shantytowns) of Brazil. Schools there are built with conflict rooms. It puts justice in the center of the school community, creating safe havens where conflict is addressed safely, even in a culture overflowing with poverty and violence.

Bullying situations test school justice cultures. What might happen if everyone at your school treasured and exercised their capacity to influence culture, address justice and protect children? Would we have the situation in the video that follows, where even parents who are experts find themselves greatly distressed by the school's failures to address the bullying affecting their child?

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