“The Closest Thing We Can Get To Justice In Our Schools”

Tracie Stinson remembers a recent incident at a La Crosse middle school when a white student called a black student the “n” word.

In a school with a traditional discipline system, the student might have received a detention, and moved on, perhaps without learning anything about the harm she had caused her classmate. But this school is one of two in La Crosse that uses a restorative justice model through a partnership with YWCA La Crosse.

Stinson, who directs the program, and student “Circle Keepers,” who are trained in restorative justice, checked in with the student to see if she’d consider joining a circle. Circles are a fundamental part of the restorative justice program, explains Karter Etchin, the restorative justice coordinator with YWCA La Crosse.

“We sit in a circle as it helps alleviate some of the power differences because there’s not really a start or an end to a circle — everybody is able to see each other and we’re all on the same level. It’s not like a teacher at the front of the classroom and everyone else is listening,” Etchin said. “We’ll use a talking piece that’s passed around and symbolizes that that person has the right to speak and everyone else has the opportunity to listen.”

The inspiration for the circle as a way for people to gather on a level playing field and hash out their problems comes from indigenous culture. Stinson said in this particular incident the student who used the “n” word left the circle aware of the damage she had caused after listening to the victim and other students.

“The young woman who used the “n” word was able to say I truly understand why this was wrong and I apologize for making you feel that way,” Stinson recalled.

It’s one example of how the restorative justice model holds students accountable for their actions in what Stinson and Etchin view as a deeper and more meaningful way than the traditional, punitive forms of school discipline. A student who simply completes a detention may never have to reckon with the hurt caused, understand it, and be held to account for their actions.

“Restorative justice is not just letting kids get off the hook for punishment; it actually has a much greater emphasis on accountability, because you have to sit in that circle with your peers and take ownership for your part in that conflict,” Etchin said.

It’s a way of getting at the root of problems, restoring relationships, and giving students tools to talk through problems and see the humanity in each other. It’s also a radically different model to the usual disciplinary system in schools that sometimes involves police officers. In La Crosse, as in many parts of the country since the murder of George Floyd, that method of discipline is being questioned, and many are calling for police to be removed from schools. Restorative justice offers an alternative model to putting police in schools, and is one that’s already up and running in La Crosse in a limited way, with potential to expand.

“What restorative justice really is, is a way to have communication amongst people to repair harm,” Stinson said. “It’s a way to talk about what’s happening instead of just going straight to a punitive measure.”

Student-led

The YWCA La Crosse’s restorative justice program was born after the publication of a report in 2014 that found that youth of color in La Crosse were “roughly nine times more likely to be arrested than white juveniles.” Many of those arrests, the report found, were occurring at school (read the report here).

Stinson noted that what “arrest” usually means in these cases is police issuing tickets for things like truancy, disorderly conduct, or smoking. But that ticket, and in rare cases an actual arrest, can be the first stop on the school to prison pipeline. Studies have shown that children who are suspended or get into trouble in school are more likely to end up in prison in the future.

Inspired by a YWCA restorative justice program in Madison, the YWCA La Crosse worked with the school district to launch a similar program in the Lincoln and Logan middle schools in 2015. The program has a planned expansion to Longfellow Middle School in the 2020/2021 school year.

It’s a model of discipline in which the students themselves have the biggest role and that serves to both educate those students and creates outcomes that are more likely to stick.

“One of the other things I really like about restorative justice is that we come up with solutions that everyone in the circle can agree with,” Etchin said. “The students themselves have a role in deciding what kind of punishment is going to happen to right that wrong so when they get to have a say in what happens, they’re much more likely to follow through with the plan because they were a part of creating it.”

The student Circle Keepers play a key role in the process. Stinson and Etchin work with school staff to identify potential Circle Keepers who can represent the diversity of that school community. They don’t necessarily look for the students who are free from adversity, but often pick students who themselves may have had problems with truancy or other issues. Etchin said those students can then draw on their experiences to help others who find themselves in a similar position.

“It’s the closest thing to justice that we can get in schools, in my opinion,” Etchin said.

It is a model that takes more time, he acknowledged, than just giving a student a ticket or a detention, but the payoff is a system where students feel heard and learn how to resolve conflicts peacefully and empathetically.

Circles are entered voluntarily by students and are not only used to resolve conflicts between students or other disciplinary issues. Etchin said the program also uses support circles to help students who might be having difficulties at home, or simply to welcome new students to a class.

Etchin points out that restorative justice is no silver bullet for the many problems facing public schools, but it is one important tool.

“When people talk about the SRO (School Resource Officer) debate, yes restorative justice is one awesome alternative, but we’re a part of the overall changes that need to happen,” he said. “That means more mental health workers, that means more social workers for students…Restorative justice is not the end-all-be-all to fix everything but it’s part of the solution.”

By Eric Timmons. Questions? Email lacrosseindependent@gmail.com. Top photo shows YWCA Restorative Justice Coordinator Karter Etchin and YWCA La Crosse Restorative Justice Director Tracie Stinson.

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