In 2007, West Philadelphia High School was considered one of the worst schools in the city of Philadelphia. It was on the Persistently Dangerous List due to violence and crime that arose among students. It seemed the school would never turn around when restorative practices were introduced to the struggling community. According to the International Institute for Restorative Practices, that year the violence rate dropped by 52%. The next year it dropped another 45%.
U-32 is not as violent as West Philadelphia High, but our community has replaced punitive methods with restorative practices as well. As a matter of fact, a new restorative justice program called “Community” has been installed by our assistant principal, Jody Emerson, that includes a new restorative justice panel comprised of our own U-32 students.
“Community” has replaced detention this year. According to Townes DeGroot, a member of the restorative justice panel and a sophomore here at U-32, Community looks into problematic behavior in ways that detention never did.
“When kids were sent to detention, none of the issues were resolved,” DeGroot said. “What Community seeks to do is address the reasons that people are there in the first place. It’s not just a punishment; it’s a way of working through and realizing why you can’t do these things.”
DeGroot said that Community means to treat students like they are adults. The program is also meant to teach students that they are responsible for their actions, but they can move past their mistakes.
Community resolves cases of bullying, students skipping classes, and students being in places they should not be. In these situations, an RP circle is held after school in Jody Emerson’s office on Tuesday or Friday from 3:00 to 4:30. DeGroot explained that each member of the circle is given a card with questions on each side. One side has questions that are directed towards the person who showed problematic behavior, and the other side is directed towards the people affected by that behavior.
Not everyone appreciates RP circles. For example, Waylon Kurts, a junior, stated that “in practice, [RP programs] fails to fulfill its purpose of resolving issues without residual sentiments.”
According to Kurts, outcomes of most restorative circles do not line up with the goal of forming emotional connections and resolving differences. “The circles are scripted, artificial and seldom seek to improve the state of the matter,” Kurts said, “but rather tend to gloss over students’ concerns in haste to sweep the issue under the rug.”
Kurts is not the only one who feels this way. Another student who asked that their name not be mentioned, and had attended multiple restorative circles, said that “the experiences have been quite varying.” The student mentioned a specific case of an RP circle failing to resolve an issue. “These two kids in my PE class were saying stuff about different gender things that I felt threatened by, and so we had a restorative practice around that,” they said. “Honestly, it didn’t change their minds about that at all, and they didn’t take it seriously. It was frustrating. It made it hard for me to have the same relationship with the people that I was having to interact with before.”
Altogether, restorative practices are not perfect. RP programs have been beneficial to school communities such as West Philadelphia High. However, to some U-32 students, RP programs have burned down bridges, or they have not made an impact. How can we apply this practice in a way that works with our diverse community?