Restorative Justice Frames Discussions in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Restorative Justice Frames Discussions in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

As area schools explore best practices, community forum looks at nation’s criminal justice system

The RJ strategy team of area schools

Forum speaker Sheila Rule, co-founder of Think Outside the Cell Foundation

Forum speaker Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association

David Karp, director of the Skidmore College Project on Restorative Justice

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Want to learn more about restorative justice? Check out the conversations in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Monday, March 7, 2016 - 4:05pm

The principles of Restorative Justice are a hot topic of conversation in and around Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in large part because of the outreach of the Skidmore College Project on Restorative Justice. Among its many local programs, the Skidmore project has helped to form a restorative justice strategy team of area schools. And to look at the bigger picture, the project, through its In Our Name Initiative, is holding a March 12 community forum on criminal justice reform in New York State and the nation.

Restorative justice is based on a collaborative decision-making process that includes offenders, victims, and others seeking to hold offenders accountable. The process requires that offenders acknowledge responsibility for their actions, take agreed-upon steps to repair the harm they have caused, and work to build constructive relationships and personal standing. The focus is on prevention, reparation, and rebuilding community trust.

The practices of restorative justice can also be used preemptively as a means of improving climate and relationships, an approach gaining momentum in Saratoga-area schools.

Schools meet to compare notes
Running a school or managing a classroom is complex business, and an important part of that responsibility is maintaining a climate that fosters learning, mutual respect, and appropriate behavior. How to best create that type of environment is a big question, particularly when traditional methods fall short.

A number of school districts in the Saratoga Springs area are exploring fresh approaches to the problem, specifically the use restorative justice practices. With the help of David Karp, professor of sociology at Skidmore College and director of the college’s Project on Restorative Justice, 11 school districts have formed a strategy team of teachers and administrators that meets regularly to discuss experiences with restorative justice, figure out the best restorative practices, and chart the way forward. Assisting with coordination of the project is Mediation Matters of Saratoga Springs, an organization that specializes in conflict resolution.

Participating school districts include Ballston Spa, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, Greenwich, Hadley-Luzerne, Hudson Falls, Oneonta, Queensbury, Saratoga Springs, South Glens Falls, Shenendehowa, and Schenectady.

The team’s February meeting took place at the Maple Ave. Middle School in Saratoga Springs. A key topic of the session was the practice of restorative circles, with participants swapping stories of how they have used this approach in their classrooms and schools.

Said Amy Totino, an assistant principal at Maple Ave. Middle School, "Having a group of educators from multiple schools who are in various stages of integrating some form of RJ is extremely helpful. Whether it is a specific piece of advice about what works or a theoretical discussion about values, knowing that we can be one another's sounding boards encourages me to maintain a thoughtful approach to my educational practice.”

While restorative justice is often used to address misbehavior or rule violations, its approaches can also be employed to improve school and classroom climate. A number of formats can be used, one of the most popular being the talking circle. As it turns out, the restorative circle is proving to be an effective tool in improving student attitude and behavior, thereby reducing the number of negative incidents.

In addressing school climate issues, the core elements of circle practice include sitting face-to-face in a circle and structuring the dialogue by passing a “talking piece” sequentially. The circle is designed to elicit frank but respectful speech; critical inquiry coupled with empathetic listening; equal participation and shared leadership; and peaceful conflict resolution.

At the strategy group’s recent session ideas were swirling as participants talked of their experiences with restorative justice and their general observations on the process. Some teachers described how they dealt with specific incidents, ranging from bullying and intimidation to a student’s addiction to chewing tobacco.

And plenty of questions came to the fore: Are high school teachers less comfortable orchestrating talking circles than are teachers in the lower grades? How do talking circles that address general climate issues differ from those held in response to a specific incident? How does restorative justice incorporate consequences when it comes to rule violations? How can restorative practices be used to reduce student suspension and the resulting isolation from the learning community?

"It's powerful and encouraging to be part of a progressive group of schools interested in implementing restorative practices,” said John Luthringer, assistant principal at the Barton Intermediate School in Queensbury. “Moving away from punitive discipline and implementing restorative justice strengthens relationships and builds caring climates in schools, and that is our ultimate goal."

Said project leader David Karp, “This is an exciting time for restorative justice in schools. There is nationwide interest in finding meaningful responses to student misconduct as a means of teaching students responsibility and strengthening their connection to school. We are pleased to provide a forum for local school districts to explore how restorative practices can better serve their students.”

Forum looks at criminal justice reform
To examine justice issues on a larger scale, the Skidmore College Project on Restorative Justice and its In Our Name Initiative will present a community forum on March 12 titled “Criminal Justice Reform: Motivating and Mobilizing the Faith Community for Restorative Justice.” The event, open to the public, will take place 1 to 4:30 p.m. at Bethesda Episcopal Church at 26 Washington St., Saratoga Springs.

The discussion will explore reforms needed to improve the fairness and effectiveness of the criminal justice system in New York State and the U.S. and the roadblocks facing formerly incarcerated men and women as they attempt to re-enter society.

Among the forum speakers will be Sheila Rule, former New York Times correspondent and co-founder and executive director of the Think Outside the Cell Foundation, who will discuss "The Myth of the Dangerous Criminal: Creating a More Honest, Humane Narrative About People Convicted of Violent Crimes." The presenters will also include Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association, who will address “How to Repair a Broken Criminal Justice System,” and Skidmore Professor David Karp, who will discuss “The Role of the Community in Restorative Justice.”

The event sponsor is First Fairfield Associates, LLC, a social enterprise firm offering consulting services nationwide. 

For more information about the Skidmore College Project on Restorative justice, visit