Restorative Justice comes to West Virginia Schools

Last summer I had a call from the superintendent of schools over in Calhoun County, West Virginia.  Superintendent Tim Woodward was frustrated by frequent fights breaking out in the schools and the ineffectiveness of the school discipline system to stop them.  He was familiar with restorative justice, having worked in the schools near Harrisonburg, Virginia.   County prosecutor, Shannon Johnson, referred Mr. Woodward to me and we brainstormed a while on how we might bring restorative justice to Calhoun County.  We found great resources in Kathy Evans, a professor at Eastern Mennonite University who works on RJ in schools, and Jim Nolan, a WVU sociology professor.   The four of us collaborated and created a two-day program in January 2017 at the  Calhoun County administrative office 

This summer, Mr. Woodward accepted an opportunity to move to  Hancock County. Meanwhile, Kelli Whytsell, the assistant superintendent in Calhoun was promoted to superintendent.  In May, Ms. Whytsell and Mr. Woodward and I put our heads together and decided to create an intensive training on restorative justice at Canaan Valley with teachers and administrators from both systems. Jim Nolan again joined us for the training.  We were also  joined by Dashiell Quasebarth, a classroom teacher in the Virginia Beach area who uses restorative justice in his classroom.  

This was a situation when I learned more than the participants!  This  enthusiastic, compassionate and experienced group of professionals quickly caught onto the concept that restorative justice focuses on healing the harm after wrongdoing, rather than punishment for punishment's sake. Many of the Calhoun County participants began implementing some restorative practices in January.  With that experience came some successes.  One of the situations that impressed me most involved two parents who were drawn into a conflict outside of school, but had heard about the restorative circles and asked the school to help them work it out. The Calhoun teachers, administrators, and counselors had experiences with students who experienced a significant transformation in accepting responsibility for their wrongdoing during restorative justice processes.

calhoun restorative justice

Most of the Hancock county professionals were new to restorative justice.  However, as they learned about the principles and values of RJ, they were able to identify ways how what they are currently doing is consistent with restorative practices. Many easily articulated finding ways to expand these ideas  further.  Several teachers were excited to learn about the paradigm shift, moving away from punishment towards an outlook that seeks to find what harm was done and then look for ways to make right the wrongs and meet the needs of the offender, victim and the community.  

Some teachers struggled with the idea of less authoritarian approach in the classroom.  Midway through the training, we did a role play.  Participants assumed roles as teachers, administrators, and students, including one very disruptive student who was having trouble learning.  During the role play, the participant’s  became perspective shifted.  Some said that the time we had together had caused them to reexamine the way that they had done things and they were excited and looked forward to a new approach.  

My favorite moment of the weekend followed some small group discussions we had about various challenges that we are trying to address with restorative justice.  When we reconvened, we formed two circles in a Margolis wheel.  Teachers from Hancock County sat on the inside of the circle, and those from Hancock on the outside of the circle as they shared the ideas that were generated from their small group discussions.  It was rejuvenating for me to see how such experienced and dedicated teachers could be so excited about bringing RJ into their work.

Many of the participants came into the training thinking that the restorative justice in schools would be another program to invest in, roll out and then replace in few years.  However, once they realized that RJ is more a "way of being" that allows the educators to integrate new ways into looking at wrongdoing in the educational environment into their communities.