Many students who come to Dearborn Academy have not had many supportive peer relationships. Some have been bullied, others have not had opportunities to create and nurture close friendships. But human beings are social beings and need to have good friends. We all need to trust others, share ideas, collaborate, and experience the many dimensions of friendship. Learning is richer when we learn with friends. They are key to both academic success – and happiness.
Creating a school where students who have not had many friends can begin to make good friendships is an essential part of our mission. Helping students navigate and maintain healthy social relationships is central to our work at Dearborn.
Dearborn strives to ensure that each student is part of our strong, inclusive school community with:
- Weekly community-building circles
- An active student council and the Genders and Sexuality Alliance (GSA)
- Mentoring and community service opportunities
- Community-building traditions including:
- A Halloween celebration
- Thanksgiving family-style meal
- March Madness week activities
- Field Day
- Student vs. staff basketball games
- High School Prom
- Color Day and more
Restorative Practices originate from Restorative Justice, a framework sometimes used in the criminal justice system. The framework for the current criminal justice system is retributive, focusing on punishing individuals who break the law.
Restorative Justice offers a completely different approach by focusing on harm done to others and the community, giving a voice to “victims” or those who have been harmed to express themselves and be the driver of a plan to move forward. It is an empowering process where both parties are able to share their perspectives, and where those who have harmed can accept responsibility and reconnect with their community.
Restorative Practices are an adaptation of these principles for schools. Dearborn partners with the organization Pathways to Restorative Communities which has provided countless hours of training, professional development, consultation, and support to staff and families. While adopting these practices, Dearborn moved away from using externalized rewards systems, which encourage students to “follow the rules,” to focus instead on building a safe and joyful community where relationships are nurtured and repaired when necessary.
As Rebecca Altepeter, Head of School, says, “As long as we are alive we are in relationships with one another. As long as we are human, we will intentionally or unintentionally make other people feel bad at times. The stronger our relationships, the less frequently we will intentionally hurt others’ feelings. Restorative Practices helps us build and repair relationships.”
Restorative Practices have drastically reduced time students spend out of class and caregivers, students, and staff have reported that these interventions have made a difference in the climate at Dearborn.
There are three different tiers to this framework:
The first and most preventative measure involves community circles. These circles are opportunities for students to have a different kind of conversation and practice being their best selves. A facilitator offers some questions or topics to think about, and each student has the ability to share their thoughts with the use of a talking piece. The student with the talking piece knows that they will not be interrupted, as the rest of the members have the privilege of listening. These circles create connections between students and staff and support the development of a kind and caring community. Dearborn students participate in circles at least once per week, and as their familiarity grows, many of them have started to facilitate circles for their peers.
The second tier is the Restorative Chat. As mentioned above, most discipline/behavior systems focus on punishment, points and levels systems, and external motivation to “do the right thing.” Restorative Chats however, are a way to facilitate a conversation after one member of the relationship feels badly about an experience with the other (e.g., left out of a group text, felt snubbed by a friend). We know that our students are not mean-spirited and often conflicts arise based on social misunderstandings. Rather than focusing on rule breaking that results in time out of class with consequences driven by adults, students learn valuable lessons about conflict resolution, healing relationships, and taking responsibility without being overwhelmed by shame.
Before a Restorative Chat starts, each student is supported by a trusted adult to practice what they would like to share and preview the process. An adult facilitates the conversation using the following questions:
The person who was harmed is asked to share:
- What happened?
- What did you think when you realized what happened?
- What was the impact of this incident on you? On others?
- What has been the hardest thing for you?
- What do you think needs to happen to make things right?
- Then the person who has had the negative impact is asked:
- What happened?
- What were you thinking at the time?
- What have you thought about the situation since?
- Who has been affected by what you did? In what way?
- What do you think you could do to make things right?
Restorative Conferences are the third tier and most intensive intervention. Conferences take place when more severe incidents occur, and bring other community stakeholders into a conversation using the circle format. More voices are heard, and a larger group can come together to be a part of the repair work that needs to be done so that those who are harmed can move forward and those who have done the harm can reintegrate into the community with a new sense of belonging and responsibility.
While we have only needed one Conference in the first two and a half years after adopting Restorative Practices at Dearborn, we know how powerful they can be and are glad to have the skills to use them if the occasion arises.
Many Dearborn students have spent much of their lives feeling and even being told that they aren’t “good enough.” When our students reach out to others and make a conscientious effort to grow and take on leadership roles in the school community, we recognize their hard work. We love honoring these efforts and acts of kindness by giving one another “shout outs” in the form of written notes of appreciation.
Students recognize one another, staff members recognize students, students recognize staff and staff recognize one another! Some of the reasons we take time to verbally and in writing appreciate each other are when we see the following in our community:
- Helpfulness to others
- Responsibly advocating for oneself
- Outstanding sportsmanship
- Showing generosity to peers and staff
- Acts of kindness and compassion
- Having the courage to be an upstander
It is not enough to care and provide educational and counseling services to students who have been through so much. We create a community where all individuals are treated with equality. That every person is entitled to equality and compassion and kindness are the truest hallmarks of courage.