The student-created video above from New Hampshire's Sanborn Regional High School (where I am principal) depicts a familiar scene in a high school hallway: A group of "mean girls" purposefully knock a bottle of water over onto another student.

Seeing this, an innocent bystander takes the issue to the school's justice committee — a peer-run organization that works to mediate student conflict and help determine an appropriate plan to restore justice. From there, the justice committee, with the support of a staff advisor, reviews the case and allows both of the students involved to present their case with a supporter by their side.

The committee deliberates and determines the best way to resolve the issue. In this case, the girls apologized to the other student and donated some of their personal time to the school's custodians to help them with tasks around the school. In turn, the girls avoided receiving a consequence such as a detention or a suspension.

In an effort to find new ways to reduce bullying and student conflict, many schools in recent years have been turning to restorative justice models to address student behavior while strengthening the culture and climate of the school community. Most restorative justice models follow a simple recipe of bringing affected parties together to make amends and reintegrate students into the classroom community.

Sanborn's restorative justice model was first conceived two years ago by Assistant Principal Ann Hadwen in collaboration with a group of Sanborn teachers and students. This was done in response to a school culture survey that called for more opportunities to introduce student voice and choice into the school community.

In the our model, students who commit a low- or medium-level behavior infraction at school may be given the option by a school administrator to have their case reviewed by the Justice Committee, instead of receiving more traditional consequences such as detentions and/or suspensions.

According to its 2015-2016 Student Handbook, the Sanborn Justice Committee system "provides ways to effectively address behavior and other school-related issues." Hadwen explains that there are three conditions that need to be met in order for an issue to be heard by the justice committee:

  • The offender (also known as the "responsible party") must admit to the offense and take responsibility
  • Harm has to have been done
  • There must be a need to repair the harm

We encourage the process because it allows both the "responsible party" and "person affected" to have their feelings validated and to allow for emotional healing. However, the person responsible still has a consequence.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, author Emily Richmond talks about "When Restorative Justice in Schools Works." She focused on New Hampshire's Pittsfield High School, a school that has implemented a similar model to that of Sanborn. Both schools worked closely with Bill Preble at the Center for School Climate and Learning to design their models and train their staff and students.

In discussing the implementation in Pittsfield, English teacher Jenny Wellington stated, "People were afraid this was going to be a 'hippy-dippy-granola, nobody's-going-to-get-into-trouble' concept. This wouldn' have been successful if we didn't start slowly and make sure everyone was really on board." In Pittsfield's model, and student or staff member can initiate a referral directly to the Justice Committee for consideration.

Schools that are considering adopting a restorative justice model may want to take their cues from schools that have been successful as well as schools that have not. Schools in Los Angeles have had a difficult two-year transition to restorative justice. While LAUSD reports a significant decline in its student suspension rate in just one year, teachers are not convinced the new system has positively changed behavior.

Teachers and administrators in LAUSD agree that the model came with a lack of training for all who would be involved in its implementation. LAUSD board member Richard Vladovic acknowledged this: "We have not provided all the training we should, but that's been historic in education. It's called the devil in the details." LAUSD has already started the process to retrain its staff, vowing to make the restorative justice model a success in each of its schools.

Back in New Hampshire, Sanborn's Justice Committee has established a small but growing footprint in the school community. Although it has only heard eight cases this school year, the cases have given the students and staff members involved an opportunity to refine their mediation and facilitation skills.

With increased training and support, Hadwen is confident the program will grow and develop, and is looking forward to it being one more way students have choice in voice in their school.