In school systems, discipline systems speak much louder than words. How can actions taken by school leaders shape the messages students receive about their value in society?
Ever since he volunteered at a community justice center in Vermont, University of Washington College of Education graduate Nicholas Bradford (MEP ‘12) has sought an answer to this question.
His quest led him to the concept of restorative justice.
“[It’s] a relational approach to conflict in which we focus on building relationship, strengthening relationship, and using the intense emotional experience of conflict as a lever to increase relationship,” Bradford said.
The center focuses on training people interested in changing their relationship with conflict, especially individuals who serve youth.
A series of four, 10-week online and in-person training courses make restorative justice a viable option for families, schools and communities and includes hands-on sessions as well as online video chats with Bradford and other facilitators, allowing administrators and parents to ask questions and get coaching for application into schools, classroom and families.
Bradford said his experiences at UW prepared him for systems-level thinking and helped him create a valuable social network.
“I value that systems-level thinking around policy and how we create easily accessible systems that compete with the traditional punitive systems,” Bradford said. “There is an old saying that “education systems are broken.’ The systems are not broken, but are doing exactly what they were meant to do. If we are unhappy with the outcomes, we need to change the systems. We need to make restorative justice easier and make it the default response.”
In the context of education, Bradford said a key concept of restorative justice is “Leadership is relationship.” He explained that adults often expect young people to approach them with their struggles, while it is more effective for adults to go toward youth, learn about them, and show they are valued by adults. In restorative justice, students are empowered by recognizing their actions and holding themselves accountable. From there, they are encouraged to state what actions they are willing to take to repair the harm.
The goal is to create strong relationships between teachers and students, not for students to spend extended amounts of time in detention or the principal’s office. More specifically, Bradford said, white teachers must express their desire to see all students succeed, especially young men of color.
“That’s how we shift that social pressure and messaging that young men of color don’t belong in school or college,” he said. “Instead, we create space for accountability, build relationships and create agency for the young person where he feels like he can do something good. Our goals are around educational success for everybody, and relationships are how we get there.”
Through his efforts, Bradford hopes to see more schools where healthy relationships among students and teachers are emphasized in the classroom. Where students have opportunities to discuss conflict as well as its impact and what actions can repair the damage.
“I think there needs to be a common language among teachers, students, parents and principals around putting the health of a relationship first,” he said. “I think that’s really what we get back to every time I ask myself, ‘Does this strengthen relationships? Or does this isolate, punish and exclude this young person?’ I want to maximize relationships and minimize shame. That means engaging more people, as well as young people who aren't affected or who were vicariously affected by that action. Teachers who support or have had challenges with that young person. The more people we put around the table, the stronger the system is.
“I hope that when teachers and administrators are thinking about conflict that they are thinking first, ‘How do I build a relationship?’ Second, ‘What do we need to do?’ In that circle, we build relationship and then figure out what needs to happen next.”
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications