Dream Big, Start Small

December 21, 2022

A cursory review of the Atlanta Journal Constitution Education section as of late will lead you to the sense that Gwinnett County Public Schools’ district-wide implementation of restorative practices is off to a rough start, if not failing outright.  According to an article published on December 16, the start has been so rocky, district leadership have opted to pause the district-wide implementation of restorative practices.

I applaud Gwinnett County for listening to teachers and parents, and taking the time to rethink their approach to building restorative school culture. 

Given the urgency of responding to decades of overly punitive discipline practices, and increases in violence and disruptive behavior in schools, more and more districts have turned to restorative practices as an alternative, with dramatic positive impacts on behavior and school culture. However, moving too fast violates the very spirit of restorative work, and can end up harming the very students and teachers it aims to support. 

Ultimately, how restorative practices are rolled out determines whether a school will see transformation of school culture, or just another district initiative that didn’t deliver on its promises. Two impact evaluations of restorative practices in dozens of schools underscore this, identifying support for teachers and administration as a critical factor in improving student behavior and relationships between adults and students. 

Through our own work in school districts around the country, we have developed a list of school-based restorative principles to guide implementation, based on the guiding  principles for  restorative justice. GCPS could consider these as they rethink the rollout: 

  1. Participation is encouraged, but voluntary.

To honor this principle, GCPS could organize a county-wide intensive restorative practices training for school leaders and other interested school representatives.  Following this training, district leaders could gauge desire and readiness among individual schools and school clusters for whole-school restorative practices implementation through an intentional and collaborative process, and then move forward initially with schools who are ready and willing.  As Peter Smagorinsky writes, it is best to “start small with people who are interested in seeing how it works.”  

Providing certain supports to one school and not another will invite criticisms of inequity. However, given the strong potential to do harm by pushing an initiative school communities don’t want, or where enabling conditions are not yet present, GCPS would be justified in a gradual rollout that meets schools where they are, and helps them get where they want to go. 

  1. The needs of those most affected are centered.

If part of the reason for implementing restorative practices is to reverse trends of inequity and disproportionality in academic and disciplinary outcomes, then we must ask ourselves several questions. How can we involve families, students and others from the community that can speak to their experience of marginalization and struggle within our schools? How can their experiences inform the design of restorative interventions, so that every child has what they need? 

  1. We promote collaboration and the sharing of power.  

Who has a seat in the Circle as we are deciding when, where, why and how to roll out restorative practices?  Are we facilitating a collaborative process where the needs of those most affected are centered?  Do school communities get to decide for themselves if and how they will participate in all phases of the process?  Restorative practices are all about power, and a shift away from power-over toward a power with approach.  How do we honor this principle right from the start?

  1. Relationships are prioritized over rules.

Restorative culture is built on respectful relationships. As we value and honor voluntary participation, center the needs of those most affected and promote authentic involvement and collaboration, we will in effect be prioritizing and building strong and caring relationships. Instead of asking “which rule was broken?,” we can ask “How has our relationship been affected, and what needs to happen to repair it?”   

  1. Committment to the process over the outcome.

This is often a tough one for district leadership, who face pressure to produce short-term outcomes such as reductions in suspensions and expulsions. As we move forward with restorative practices implementation, our primary focus should be on putting equitable and effective processes in place. In our experience, district leadership tends to focus on short term outcomes, such as whether suspensions or referrals are being reduced.

As emerged in GCC’s Restorative Practices Implementation Process Evaluation that was published in March, 2021, many of the metrics that we use to gauge progress with restorative practices in schools are relics of a punitive system.  As a school community, or an entire district, moves forward with restorative practices implementation, part of the work will be the development of new metrics that reflect growth, development and the building of restorative culture.  Initially however, over the first three to five years, a school community should seek to measure progress by how closely they have followed the implementation plan that they developed together as a school community and with the support of expert technical assistance.

  1. Ownership, responsibility and restorative systems of accountability are built over time.

This last principle encourages all of us that are involved in the implementation of restorative practices to have a long term perspective.  Educational outcomes are not going to change overnight.  We are not going to eliminate punitive approaches to discipline over night either.  However, each year of implementation we will set new goals and objectives toward the further incorporation of restorative approaches.  Restorative practices implementation is an iterative process.  As we develop new, restorative systems and structures, we will likely find that things will need to be tweaked along the way.  Again, this is a journey, not a magic wand or a quick fix.  Building just and equitable systems in schools in some ways is about charting a course that has never existed before, or at least not in the lifetime of most of the adults in the school building.  This journey is going to take courage and perseverance.  The restorative principles should serve as a compass to help us find our way along the way.  One thing is for sure though, if we embark on the journey without the restorative principles in mind, without our compass so to speak, as challenges arise, it will be far easier to abandon ship, then to correct course and continue on with the journey.  

As school districts consider the incorporation of restorative approaches to school culture and discipline, we encourage them to dream big and start small.  We can not be satisfied with the repetition of cycles of inequity, exclusion and struggle that certain communities continue to experience in our schools.  We have to dream big and imagine a future that we can not yet see.  Then, with the restorative principles in mind, we move forward little by little, one relationship at a time.  

Recent Articles

AJC OpEd by Peter Smagorinsky from November 30, 2022

AJC article by Maureen Downey entitled, “Gwinnett school discipline debate: Has compassion devolved into chaos?” from December 5, 2022

AJC Article by Josh Reyes entitled, “Gwinnett to make ‘mid-course corrections’ to school discipline policy” from December 16, 2022

Daniel Malec Bio

Daniel Malec is Executive Director at Georgia Conflict Center (GCC). Daniel has a Master of Arts in Conflict Transformation from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University.  Before becoming Executive Director, Daniel served for 4 years as Restorative Schools Program Manager at GCC, primarily assisting the Clarke County School District, Gwinnett County School District and individual Clarke County and Gwinnett County Schools with Restorative Practices implementation. Daniel is also overseeing the development and implementation of GCC’s Restorative Justice Diversion Program in partnership with the District Attorney’s Office of the Western Judicial Circuit.  Prior to moving to Athens, Daniel served for 4 years as Assistant Principal of Restorative Practices at E.L. Haynes Public Charter High School in Washington, D.C (2012-2016).  He has worked for 20+ years in the areas of youth development, youth violence prevention and intervention, trauma awareness and resilience, conflict transformation, restorative practices and school administration.  

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