At the May 6 District 65 School Board meeting, administrators summarized the status of restorative practices at the schools. “Restorative practices are the bedrock of our student behavior and discipline policy,” said Joyce Bartz, Assistant Superintendent of Special Education. “We’re going from punishment to repairing harm. That’s a big culture shift for all of us.”

“District 65 has been utilizing restorative practices for several years and is continuing to invest in them as a means to develop more positive approaches to discipline and enhance school climate,” says a memo prepared by Mr. Bartz and Andalib Khelghati, Assistant Superintendent of Schools. “The foundation of Restorative Practices lies in creating community and strengthening relationships.”

The memo emphasizes, “Restorative practices are not a quick fix to student behaviors or disciplinary issues, but rather a school culture focused on relationship building and providing high levels of support and accountability to create long-term impact for all school community members.”

Teresa Quinn and Meagan Novara, Restorative Practice Facilitators, said staff in all of the elementary schools have been trained in the use of restorative practices during the past three and one-half years.

Ms. Novara said restorative practices are not an intervention, but a shift in school culture. She said “When they are implemented with fidelity, we will have the power to make schools safer, increase achievement, improve climate, empower students to solve problems in a non-violent way and to change lives.”

Ms. Quinn said the District adopted restorative practices to address racial disparities in discipline, but they do much more than that. She said about 80% of the restorative practices in a school building are the use of sharing circles and what she calls a “restorative conversation” or an “informal restorative conference” with a student.

Sharing circles, she says, build community in a classroom and build relationships.  This ultimately influences how teachers choose to handle discipline and helps eradicate bias and racial disparities in discipline, she said. 

Ms. Quinn said teachers may also have a restorative conversation, which typically takes place when a teacher pulls a student aside. Teachers are trained on how to conduct these conversations, rather than just “winging it.” There are four essential things to discuss, she said: what happened, what the student is thinking or feeling, what impact the behavior is having on others, and how the student is going to repair the harm.

The goal of these conversations is that the student develop some self-awareness, take ownership of his or her actions and repair the harm.

Ms. Novara said, “The restorative conversations are the backbone of our restorative practices and they run through everything.

Ms. Novara said the informal conferences have been very productive. School staff can be very explicit about what is expected of a student or students, forge a compromise and discuss how they are going to repair the harm and be friends or not. If they are not going to be friends, they need to agree on how they are going to act safely and respectfully towards each other, she said.

“It’s moving away from shaming and bringing people back into the community,” said Ms. Novara. “When implemented properly, it becomes the dominant culture of the building. It can be a culture of respect. If that’s the dominant culture, it reduces the discipline issues in the building.”

The schools are also using peace circles to address major issues in the classroom or with a large group of students where some harm has been caused, said Ms. Quinn. These represent about 20% of the restorative practices in the schools. All parties have to agree to sit in a circle, and there is a format to that as well, she said.

When asked, Ms. Novara said, “We don’t go forward [with a peace circle] if the victim is not comfortable participating in a conference with the students who caused the harm.”

Ms. Quinn added that staff determine in a pre-conference if the victim is comfortable with participating in a peace circle. She added, “If a person causing the harm is not taking ownership, then we don’t do the conference. If they don’t take ownership, it may cause more harm than good.”

Ms. Novara said, “One of things we’ve been working on is reframing the idea that the school is a place where nothing bad ever happens.” Instead of thinking of it that way, she said, one of her colleagues described a school as a “town square,” where all these souls converge. “The idea there wouldn’t be conflict is naïve, and our job as adults is to help them navigate this conflict.”

While the system is not intended to be punitive, there can still be consequences. Ms. Novara said the act of apologizing can be a “huge consequence.” Cleaning up after a food fight can be a consequence. “It’s about accountability – owning what you did and making it right,” she said.

When asked about how vaping in the bathroom might be handled, Ms. Quinn said, a student might be asked to do community service or participate in a workshop with PEER Services. “It would be a more restorative practice than suspension,” she said.

When asked about bullying, Ms. Novara gave an example how it was handled at one school. First, she said, the teacher met with the student being bullied and the offender. When the bullying did not stop, they contacted the parents of the student doing the bullying and held a conference just with the offender, because the student being bullied did not want to participate.

As a result of that conference, the student entered into a behavioral contract, listing things the student would do and not do. The contract was signed and kept confidential, Ms. Novara said.

In the past few months, parents have raised concerns about bullying in the schools, and the failure of the schools to stop the bullying. Superintendent Paul Goren acknowledged that concerns were being raised about bullying in an April 4 letter. One middle school principal acknowledged parents’ concern about bullying in an April 14 letter to families.

Ms. Bartz said, “We intend to make our District a restorative practice district.” Next year, she said, there will be people in place at each school who will be helping to implement restorative practices. She added they are modeling their program after school districts in Oakland, Cal., and Denver, Col.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...