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Homer Flex High School is adopting restorative justice

Renee Gross, KBBI News

The approach to classroom management is shifting across the nation. Over the past decade, many educators and communities have grown frustrated with traditional punishment-focused discipline in the classroom. These schools are now trying something new:  restorative justice. This practice uses relationship building to both prevent and manage conflict in schools. Homer Flex High School is the first of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to receive a training on it.

Math and science teacher Lindsay Martin talked with a Homer Flex high schooler at a training on Saturday about plans to create a circle where each student can talk without being interrupted.

“How many times do you think we should go around the circle?”  Martin asked the student. 

This structured circle is aimed at encouraging open and honest dialogue and is one technique the school plans to use as a way to implement restorative justice in the school.

The idea is to rethink the way students and staff interact on a day-to-day basis as a whole, but it’s also to change the way both interact when a student is goofing off in class or gets in trouble. By improving those relationships, the outcomes for students are also supposed to improve. 

Homer Flex Principal Christopher Brown said he wanted to bring restorative justice training to the school in part to strengthen students' voices. That’s something high school teacher Martin is excited about.  

“I think that students in the classroom don't always get their needs met and sometimes there are behaviors that teachers and staff don't want,” she said.  “And I think those behaviors are a direct result of the students not being able to express what it is that they desperately want to tell us. They want attention and they want to be heard but they do not know how to say that so they do things that are less desirable."

Martin is already committed to making sure there is a positive community in her classroom. But having that commitment is different than having the tools.

“I was formally trained in science education and I sat in classrooms talking about pedagogy and how to teach things and Maslow's hierarchy of needs and all of those are really important things,” she said. “But I didn't have a single class in college to teach me how to build and sustain positive community and what an important and essential tool that is and it was almost just trial by fire.”

Kerri Berkowitz was leading the training and she says implementing restorative justice techniques takes time and intention but the move away from more traditional forms of discipline is worth it.

“Over the course of the last decade and beyond there's been many many studies and a lot of research that was done on a zero tolerance punitive policies in our schools around the effectiveness of it,” she said.  “And what has become very clear that many studies have shown is that it's not effective at all. In fact it doesn't make our schools safer and it could actually be detrimental to students. So just the act of suspending a student increases their risk of dropping out of school and having contact with the criminal justice system.”

Instead of suspending students, restorative justice wants to keep kids in school and focus more on the impact that the behavior has on the school community by bringing "everyone together who was affected by the incident in a collaborative problem solving practice," Berkowitz said. 

At Homer Flex, the school already has a low-rate of suspension but it still plans to use discipline techniques to accentuate what it already does. 

Ella, a high schooler said, “I think it's not looking into something as so much negative and putting a kid down for something. I think it's more just learning from a decision and I think it's more talking it through--what happened and how can you grow from this and what mistake did you make and why.”

Students and staff at Homer Flex aren’t the only ones interested in a restorative justice practice. Members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District also attended another training on the topic last week. They say there is no formal plan to bring it into other schools but there may be one in the future.