Using restorative practices to build healthy relationships between students

  • From left, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, Betsy Williams of the Mediation and Training Collaborative, and Sen. Jo Comerford talk at the School-Based Restorative Practice meeting at the John W. Olver Transit Center in Greenfield late last week. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 6/16/2019 10:13:59 PM

GREENFIELD — The Mediation and Training Collaborative’s Restorative Practices Project has completed a year-long study and will continue to work with local schools to integrate ways for teachers, staff and administrators to build strong, healthy relationships between students, as well as the entire school community.

Building on more than 30 years of work in schools and with youths using mediation, collaboration and restorative practices — a social science that studies how to strengthen relationships between individuals, as well as social connections within communities — TMTC, a program of Community Action Pioneer Valley, applied a small grant from the state Office of Public Collaboration to support the integration of restorative practices in western Massachusetts schools, including those in Franklin County.

Restorative practices use different approaches to developing relationships and community building but also help repair relationships when harm has been done, whether bullying, teasing or other negative and hurtful behaviors.

Those practices might include encouraging empathy, respect, trust, honesty, compassion, accountability and more, according to project members. It might also include conflict resolution, peer mediation or intervention.

Resolution circles are used to build accountability and consider responses to behaviors that don’t support healthy relationships.

Gill-Montague Community School Partnership Director Kara McLaughlin said the practices are used to prevent harm but also to restore it when harm is already done.

“This is about relationships, seeing one another, creating a deep connection,” McLaughlin said.

She said it’s about starting the healing process as soon as harm it done — or, hopefully, preventing it before it begins.

McLaughlin told a story about a young man at Turners Falls High School who was part of the special education program. She said he was a typical target for bullying.

“When he graduated, it was with broad shoulders and a big smile, ready for life,” she said.

McLaughlin said he had participated in community-building circles.

“He felt cared for, loved, ready for life,” she said.

What's next

About 40 people attended a celebration of school-based restorative practices late last week, where project participants talked about the year-long study and what’s next.

According to those involved in the project, it will document local resources and needs and tell compelling stories to support its search for financial and other resources to address the needs of county schools.

The project also plans to provide professional development training for school administrators, interventionists and resources officers, to name a few.

It will also provide training and consultation to aid schools in developing supportive cultures and implementing restorative practices activities, though schools are under no obligation to work with TMTC.

And, the project will continue to present its findings, as its research continues, to participants, policy makers and potential funders.

Debbie Lynangale, another member of the project team, said mediation has been happening for a long time in schools, but how it happens and the language used keeps evolving.

“This is also important so that people know they’re not alone,” Lynangale said.

She said schools using restorative practices have seen fewer suspensions and expulsions, less tardiness and fewer student sick days.

“They’re better at resolution and there are lower dropout rates,” she added.

Lynangale said schools throughout Franklin County are using restorative practices, but not everyone in the schools are, so that’s a goal of the project, because there will be even more positive impact if everyone is using them.

She said the next step is to do more research and plan. The project will not only support existing initiatives being used in schools but help build awareness and increase support to schools.

“There are great things happening,” she said.

Leigh-Ellen Figueroa, dean of school at Pioneer Valley Performance Arts Charter Public School, said the school used circles in its restorative practices this past year and saw some good results.

“Detentions were replaced with supervised circles,” she said. “Kids, peers were the facilitators, with adult supervision. It was a place where students could find the humanness in each other and move past barriers that were blocking from the harm that happened.”

She said it is not always about the harm one student might be doing to another, but the harm a teacher might be doing, without even realizing it.

“The goal isn’t always to leave as best friends, but to leave understanding where the other person is coming from,” she said.

Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who has been a champion of mediation in schools, told the group he will continue to help fund the project, while Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan praised the project, saying it comes a the right time.

Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, said she is thrilled there is something to address the needs of marginalized people, especially students.

“I’m really grateful for this work and will support it going forward,” Comerford said.

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