Finding peace in the classroom begins in primary grades at Randolph Academy
It’s a typical school day at the Randolph Academy near western New York’s Lake Erie.
As they do each time there’s a playground fight or a disruptive outburst in class, students huddle up. This group, seated in a circle of burgundy and tan plastic chairs, includes sixth and seventh graders.
As an Imprint reporter looked on in late November, a few chatted and others seemed intent when they gathered to discuss the previous day’s incident: A student had stormed out of the classroom, slamming a classmate’s finger in the door.
The school’s restorative justice coordinator, Laura Heeter, and guidance counselor Tina Morgan lead the half-hour discussion about what the four middle schoolers saw and how it affected them.
The students said they felt scared; one says he “hid under a desk.” Another described throwing a chair — out of frustration for the student whose fingertip was nearly severed in the door. The children’s teacher says the incident left her feeling “frustrated.”
K-12 students at Randolph Academy have been reassigned from their local public schools due to emotional and behavioral challenges, such as kids needing a smaller classroom setting due to extreme anxiety. A small percentage, roughly 5% of students, are currently in foster care, and some have had experiences in the juvenile justice system.
In restorative justice circles like these, Randolph Academy wants to help kids find a better way forward.
Traditional discipline and conflict management strategies in schools across the country are under heightened scrutiny and reevaluation, following a racial justice reckoning sparked by the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. Combined with a growing awareness of adolescent brain science and the weight of mass incarceration on society, youth and families, many schools are in search of alternatives that have been in place at Randolph Academy for seven years.
Citing a history of practice within Indigenous cultures, the Center for Justice and Reconciliation described the goal of restorative justice as healing.
“Reinforcing this goal of healing is the empowerment of the community to be involved in deciding what is to be done in the particular case and to address underlying problems that may have led to the crime,” the center states on its website.
As previously reported by The Imprint, restorative justice has become a standard offering across the U.S., increasingly relied upon by schools and law enforcement to divert low-level students and juvenile offenders away from the criminal justice system. Laws supporting the method — which brings a perpetrator, a victim and related parties together to address wrongdoing, identify underlying issues and inspire healing rather than retribution or punishment — now exist in 45 states, according to a 2019 analysis published in the Utah Law Review.
In schools that have reopened this fall after a year of pandemic shutdowns and young people’s deteriorating mental health, there is new inspiration and also new challenges to the practice. Some schools from New York to California have seen a rise in campus violence that administrators attribute in part to pandemic-related tension and stress.
At Randolph Academy’s 9-acre Hamburg campus in southwest Buffalo, restorative justice has been a central part of the curriculum since 2015. Roughly 75 students are now in attendance, arriving from dozens of urban and suburban schools in the region. The kids are mostly boys, and more than half are white, with a smaller number of Black and Latino students.
“There’s a level of personal attention here that public schools, I don’t think, are able to offer,” counselor Morgan said.
Randolph Academy requires no homework and features weekly counseling, one teacher and 1 aide for every 8 students. The suburban Hamburg campus features vocational training including a culinary course and a barbering and cosmetology class where community members can receive meals and haircuts from the students. One student showed a reporter the essential oil sticks she’d made in school earlier that November day.
The school’s circle practice is guided by a tiered system. Tier I circles focus on relationship building. Tier II circles address conflicts. and the last tier, Tier III, tackles more serious issues.
At a morning Tier I circle for second and third graders, a teacher placed a ceramic cupcake, a candle and a small plush toy on the floor for the kids to focus on if they didn’t want to make eye contact. They responded in different ways. One walked in and out of the circle and played with plastic traffic cones. Another stayed in the back of the classroom with a teacher’s aide for one-on-one support. A new student in the class kept his head down, banged his fist on the desk, and ignored most of the teacher’s questions. One boy sat with his stuffed unicorn, stroking it during his turn to speak.
Parent Bill Petrie said that. well into his son’s second academic year at the school, he’s seen improvements in the behavior of the 14-year-old, who he hopes eventually can return to his home school.
“When he got there to the new school, there were a few issues at that time, but they’re getting fewer and farther between, and I think they’re handled pretty well over there,” Petrie said. “Instead of just suspending him for acting up, they take them aside. They have talks, and it’s really helping them a lot.”
In the beginning of the pandemic, groups of parents attended online support sessions to discuss their struggles with remote learning and managing their children’s behaviors.
The school resumed in-person learning in September 2020. With students in the classrooms again, a former student now working at the school as a teacher aide, Bernard Ealy, said, “They’ve been having so much energy they couldn’t get out.”
But when it comes to suspending students for problematic behavior — a move that can lead
Restorative justice coordinator Heeter said the same applies to situations such as students caught smoking marijuana on campus. One student was found smoking in the school’s bathroom the day The Imprint was there. He was later asked to participate in a Tier III circle with his guardian, probation officer and guidance counselor and ended with an agreement that the child not bring “contraband” to school.
“The first line of defense in most schools would be to call the police,” Heeter said. Instead, her team attempts dialogue. “We’re going to have a conversation with him and we’re going to see where to go from there.”
The school’s spokesperson, Mike Barone, added that although police are rarely called to campus, when they are, it is due to a “significant mental health event,” and the authorities are accompanied by crisis mental health teams.
Rather than a rules-based system built around detentions and suspensions and other punitive measures, the school relies on positive peer pressure and shared expectations to turn troublesome behavior around. Wrongdoing is addressed in circles of affected students that attempt to address the impact of campus disruptions and come up with a communal resolution.
According to the school’s internal data comparing 2018 statistics with numbers from 2015 — just before the switch to restorative justice practices — campus disruptions have diminished significantly. Fights dropped 96% and suspensions fell 40% during that time period. The pandemic has resulted in an uptick in fights on Randolph’s campus and campuses nationwide, but the numbers remain well below what they once were.
To support the spread of restorative justice, the school hosts workshops, learning labs and training for educators statewide, and hires interns from the Department of Sociocultural and Justice Sciences at the State University of New York at Fredonia.
In summarizing some of the takeaways from his internship for his college professor, Kyle MacDonald said he’d learned the importance of listening to children and building trust with them. He also listened in as they shared their trauma with each other during circles.
“Whatever the definition of a ‘bad kid’ is, none of the students at Randolph Academy fit that definition,” MacDonald wrote. “These students are just looking for someone to understand where they’re coming from.”
To be sure, circle practice and restorative justice is not always fully embraced as useful and effective, as some teachers, students and scholars have pointed out.
“The high schoolers don’t really want to do a circle and talk about how they’re feeling,” said Spencer, an 11th grader. “I don’t really try anymore. I let other people talk because they like to talk a lot.”
The Imprint is using only the students’ first names to protect their identities as minors.
James, a sixth grader, said he participates in circles about once a week, but his take on the restorative method is nuanced. “Sometimes they’re a bit meaningless,” he said. “But sometimes they are good to have, just to have an understanding of what happened.”
James also acknowledged those students who are reluctant to participate, noting the difficulty of the conversations. “They may not want to do it because they don’t want to relive that situation, because you know, it wasn’t the best moment for them,” he said.
It must also be said that circle practice at the school doesn’t always have the restorative outcome envisioned for all.
In the group discussion following the finger-slamming incident, for instance, the harmed student and the one who caused the harm weren’t present. One was home nursing his wound and the other refused to participate.
If they had joined the 30-minute Nov. 18 circle — in which some kids spoke only briefly and there were intermittent periods of silence — “you would have a circle that went on probably for another hour,” Heeter told a reporter afterward. She also said, “Our older students are a little bit more guarded. It takes a little while for them to build trust with someone.”
Eve Hanan, a University of Nevada Las Vegas law professor and former public defender who has published research identifying the limitations of restorative justice in criminal cases, said in an interview there are legitimate reasons why older youth may be resistant to participating. While she generally supports the approach in schools such as Randolph Academy and in the juvenile justice system, she said circles don’t often go far enough to dial back punitive consequences.
It’s “wonderful to give someone a chance to apologize and make things better,” she said, and in court cases, that is a far better outcome for youth than prosecution. But as kids get older, they may feel forced to share in these group settings, she added.
“Kids are smart and they care about authenticity, and they care about being heard,” said Hanan, who has facilitated restorative justice programs between Baltimore schools and the justice system. “If they think that they’re being sold a bill of goods or being asked to say things that they don’t feel inside, it’s not going to go well.”
Hanan argues for greater reliance on mediation, a process that doesn’t center one child as “the problem,” rather than deeper systemic injustices like poverty, racism and discrimination. “It doesn’t get to the root of who’s in the circles,” she said. “And in that way, that kind of restorative justice conflict resolution is not really that different from other kinds of more traditional forms of disciplining kids.”
Bernard, the Randolph Academy employee and former student, said his schooling was marked by multiple suspensions from his home school district.
“I had a problem with authority,” he said.
Now, he uses his personal experience with circle practice and restorative justice to support the young people he walked the halls with as a student two years ago.
“Everybody comes to a conclusion, and everybody takes accountability for their actions,” he said. “They figure out where it went wrong, and what we could do better or do differently so that that won’t happen again.”