Thinking deeply about student conflicts

At Roosevelt in River Forest, restorative justice is about more than an alternative to punishment

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By Michael Romain 'Connects'

Staff reporter

During a recent interview, Tina Steketee, the assistant principal of Roosevelt Middle School in River Forest, succinctly described an enduring truth of restorative justice practices. 

"All humans need problem-solving guidance," she said, before explaining how the implementation of restorative practices at the school has changed how students — minority and non-minority — process conflict. 

"Before, when we would have situations, we might just do consequences, but they might spark up again," said Larry Garstki, the school's principal. "We've seen lots of progress with relationships. If an issue isn't mended, at least there are agreements to act civil and to seek out help from an adult before anything escalates again." 

Garstki and Steketee said restorative practices aren't alternatives to consequences, they're tools for helping students think through their emotions and the various relationships that inform their lives. 

"The consequence itself doesn't help the situation," Garstki said. "Processing with that other person [who the student is in conflict with], usually with an adult facilitator present, does help. The students can make agreements with each other and figure out where everything went sideways, how to avoid the situation in the future, set norms for moving forward and problem-solve." 

Steketee said Roosevelt's conflict resolution process usually involves restorative conversations between students that are facilitated by social workers (the school has three on staff). Social workers also inform parents and guardians about the conflict and the process of resolving it. 

Social workers usually put a series of questions to students — among them, "How have I contributed to this issue/matter?" and "Who else has been impacted?"

Steketee said that all social workers have the same questions. 

"We want the protocol to always be consistent, so kids know what to expect," she said. "We have the questions read and we ask parents to review them with their children." 

The point of the questions, Steketee said, is to force students to think beyond themselves. 

"We try to get to that root and to get the students to take control of what their part is in the situation," she said. "It doesn't always lead to an apology or even a rehash of the issue. The last question asked is, 'What do I need to do to move on?'" 

For the last three years, Roosevelt has convened a school advisory program that facilitates targeted social and emotional learning in collaboration with a similar program at Oak Park and River Forest High School called Project Snowball. 

The advisory program is one aspect in the District 90's effort to strengthen relationships between students and adults at the middle school. 

"We put a lot of energy, time and training into the relationship piece," Steketee said. "Many of [the restorative conversations] don't end with formal consequences. That's generally not the end result if we're going to restore this process. It's a mindset shift. Sometimes, parties involved want to know what is the tangible consequence, but we're really clear about what the process is. We want students to own their own behavior and understand what they need to do differently." 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com  

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