Over President’s Day Weekend, second-grade 21st Century Charter @ Gary teacher Brittany Rustad attended a LEE national leadership conference in Houston, TX on the power of restorative justice policies in schools.  During her first year of teaching at 21st Century Charter through the Teach for America program, Ms. Rustad joined Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering Teach for America corps members and alumni to grow as leaders in their communities.

 Now in her second year of the Teach for America program, Ms. Rustad has been able to take advantage of multiple LEE opportunities to better herself as an educator and as a community member.  “The organization propels policy leaders into creating really tangible changes in education.  It’s about the intersection of policy and education.  I joined my first year of teaching, and was able to get started right away.  I think there’s a huge gap of teacher voice in the policy space, and LEE allows for more teacher voice through organized activism and community outreach.”

The LEE conference Ms. Rustad most recently attended focused on the power of restorative justice for a thriving school environment, with regard to the needs of teachers, students, families, and the surrounding community.  Restorative justice as an educational policy relates to disciplinary policy and practices that strives to provide an alternative to punitive discipline, which leads to high suspension and expulsion rates.  “Restorative justice seeks to restore both the victim and the perpetrator,” Ms. Rustad explains.  “I see it as starting from the classroom – controlling your space.  It’s about regarding the physical and emotional needs of all students, including parties involved in disciplinary problems, in an effort to build up the school community, rather than push kids out.  I started hearing about it as an alternative to the school-to-prison pipeline, in order to keep kids in school and in the classroom, and not push them out with suspensions and expulsions.”

One statistic that was discussed during the conference was that third and fourth grade reading scores are now consulted to determine the number of prison cells that will need to be built in upcoming years, to hold low performers.  “Which is just sad,” Ms. Rustad laments.  “But unfortunately, that is a strong indicator of how many prison cells they’re going to need.  This is really what restorative justice practices are trying to reverse, to get at the root causes of these issues.”  Four root causes of this predicament were named at this LEE conference: “Zero Tolerance” disciplinary policies, where students are pushed out of the classroom without regard to variation of the particular infraction’s magnitude or severity; a discernible increase of police presence on school campuses in recent years; budget cuts, which can strip schools of their ability to provide counseling resources to students; implicit racism, which calls attention to the reality that an overwhelming portion of all suspended and expelled students are black.

“It’s about setting high expectations for students, but also working to address root causes of the issue in a way that restores the student back into the school community, as opposed to pushing them out of school,” Ms. Rustad explains.  In order to achieve this goal, Ms. Rustad elaborated on four solutions proposed at the LEE conference to introduce into the school environment: mentoring, counseling, academic support, and outreach workers.  But it doesn’t take an extensive re-working of staff members to accommodate these roles – with the right training, teachers can help to provide these resources to students.  “I have found that when you start these practices with students, and you get kids to open up and speak about the root causes of some of these issues, you’re not prepared as an educator to respond in an appropriate way to the trauma they have been experiencing, or knowing what to do next.  As a teacher, I want to receive training and develop to be trauma-sensitive,” Ms. Rustad admits.

“Something that I struggled with my first year of teaching – how do I even begin to reach a child who continually makes the same disruptive or violent behaviors in the classroom? How do I keep that student in? And what resources do I have to work through those issues with that child? But I have come to recognize myself as a person who is in a position of power, who is determining the pace and the amount of content the kids are taking in, and who is able to take in that content?”

“I have had several behavioral situations in my classroom, which I handle by holding group discussions – why did this happen? What does this mean for us? How does this affect our classroom? And I think a lot of teachers here are using these kinds of strategies in bite-sized pieces.  Holding ‘peace circles’, discussion circles that seek to facilitate group conversation in order to determine how to meet the needs of both the victim and the perpetrator back into the classroom, and to give the perpetrator the opportunity to amend their wrongdoing, can work wonders in facilitating a positive learning environment for everyone,” Ms. Rustad mentions.  “Now, these are not occasions where everyone sits around and sings kumbaya  – the results have shown that even taking a small amount of time to have community discussions on classroom management and discipline has led to increased test scores, because students are comfortable and better adept at learning when they are supported with positive energy.”