By Lexi Anderson
Restorative justice, a new disciplinary system focused on individual growth, has begun to take effect in institutions around Vermont. This model, hallmarked by its focus on community involvement, conversation and personal development, has been applied to youth legal misdemeanors around the state and more recently has reached the halls of Champlain Valley Union High School.
Beckett Pintair, CVU student body president and leader of the Youth Restorative Justice Board in Williston, has seen first-hand the effects of restorative justice on youth infractions.
“Right now, the (justice) system is not very functional; it doesn’t look at actual people,” he said. “It doesn’t actually do anything to repair the harm to the responsible party or the victim … With restorative justice, they can actually learn from their crime.”
Through the Restorative Justice Board, Pintair has been able to mentor young offenders, write “creative and constructive” learning contracts and learn about the larger-scale impacts of criminal justice reform.
“Really, what restorative justice is about is repairing the harm, yes, but also building connections, so that the community and the person are stronger and can become stronger out of that,” he explains.
In a school setting, the application of restorative justice takes on another form. As of now, the Restorative Justice Board in Williston is grant funded through the Vermont Department of Corrections, which limits its ability to extend to school infractions. The law states that a student must be referred to the board through a police officer, so unless the police were involved in an incident, the student isn’t eligible for restorative justice reform through the board.
Because of that, the opportunity for restorative justice within individual schools has required a more hands-on approach.
“My senior project is to try and give schools the training manual and resources to create an in-house restorative justice board,” Pintair explained. “That way, for incidents (in school) that they don’t want the police involved in, they can handle them in school in a restorative justice way.”
Pintair’s push for disciplinary reform has been greeted with a vague response from school adminstrators, he said.
“The response so far has been ‘we will accept anything you will give us, but we’re not sure how much or how little we’ll use it.’”
CVU Principal Adam Bunting is open to the new approach. In response to CVU’s current disciplinary system, he commented, “many of our beliefs around when there has been a violation of the community’s trust starts with some of the same beliefs that fuel restorative justice.”
The system that currently exists, according to Bunting, is a nod toward restorative justice.
“The way the structures are set up … the idea is that the house directors are building relationships with families and with people so that when issues arise you have a foundation to understand each other,” said Bunting.
He touts CVU’s commitment making students feel safe and heard, as opposed to taking a harsh, definitive disciplinary approach.
“You would be surprised about the number of issues that are prevented, the things that don’t happen, because students are watching out for one other and they have a relationship with an adult in the building,” he said. “It’s about seeing people with an unconditional positive regard … looking at what the individual did, but also, how did the system contribute to that.?”
According to the Civil Rights Data Collection, black students are almost four times as likely to be suspended than their white classmates, and almost three quarters of students with disabilities in the United States have been suspended a minimum of once during their secondary education.
“It’s pretty clear that our current system isn’t working,” Pintair said.
Will restorative justice progress within the halls of CVU?
According to Bunting, “it’s really important, and we do have several people in training right now.”
Restorative justice conversations may begin to appear within classrooms and among administrators as the CVU community begins to formulate an equitable approach to school discipline, and moves toward growth, over punishment.