Restorative Justice makes a difference
Restorative Justice in Montclair, some resources
Brave Space Community Dialogue sessions are held over Zoom. tinyurl.com/y5t7zpry
Restorative justice community discussions have finished for the summer, and will be resuming in September. tinyurl.com/yy79yxxu
Restorative justice resources in Montclair Public Schools. tinyurl.com/y4vf2lfo
The Montclair Education Association also holds restorative justice conversations. njea.org
By REBECCA JONES
For Montclair Local
In a time of sharp divisiveness and increasing confrontation across the country, the practice of restorative justice as one solution is gaining favor, and has found a testing ground in Montclair.
Restorative justice (RJ), as defined on restorativejustice.org, is “a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that allow all willing stakeholders to meet. This can lead to transformation of people, relationships and communities.”
Its roots are in the practices of indigenous peoples, but it has more recently been used in detention centers and in place of court proceedings.
Many proponents view it more broadly, as a means to building more equitable communities, restoring harmony after racially charged incidents occur, and as a tool to help close the achievement gap in schools.
This cooperative process gives all parties the chance to speak, to listen and to address conflicts in a community of peers, rather than turning to the police or using social media to shame one another.
In September 2018, Montclair started implementing RJ with students and parents at the high school, and last year, a pilot program began in Glenfield Middle School, Renaissance Middle School and Edgemont Elementary School.
In February, Montclair’s restorative justice staff, along with parents and teachers, presented to the Board of Education stories about how RJ is making a difference in Montclair schools.
“When a student is removed from the classroom, it makes them feel like they don’t belong in that classroom,” Glenfield Middle School PTA Co-President Kristin Wald said to the board at that meeting. Restorative justice provides students and educators with inclusive ways to solve problems, she said.
RESTORATIVE JUSTICE, VIRTUALLY
On June 19 the Montclair YMCA launched a series called Brave Space Community Dialogue that is based on some RJ principles. These community discussions, held over Zoom, are led by Dr. Laura Quiros, the YMCA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee chairwoman, and are meant to be a safe space where people can speak openly and honestly.
“Montclair is not a perfect utopia,” Quiros told the 34 people who participated in the second session on July 8, “racism exists here. These discussions started to create dialogue leading to systemic change by working together to form a more inclusive community.”
Alma Schneider shared an incident involving her son during that session. “I wish restorative justice had been in the schools when it happened,” Schneider said. “When there’s a conflict between students and parents — going to the police, public shaming, these things aren’t going to help. It’s more productive to get together and talk. I’m so happy the YMCA is doing this. We need more of this.”
Restorative Justice Montclair has been hosting community discussions via Zoom, and at the last one on June 28, Kate Albright [who is also a freelance photographer for this paper] said she witnessed restorative justice in action.
What she saw was an apology that led to an invitation.
Albright saw RJ Montclair coordinator Gayl Shepard and Montclair Education Association President Petal Robertson apologize to National Independent Black Parent Association representative Kellia Sweatt.
Sweatt had complained last year about a racist comment attributed to then-Superintendent Nathan Parker. Sweatt accepted the apology, and has been invited to be a panelist at the next RJ Montclair community discussion in September.
The Montclair Education Association started hosting community conversations exploring racial justice and restorative justice practices this spring as well.
BUILDING FROM NEED
One RJ practice is circle, in which participants sit in a circle and have an open dialogue on a given topic. A sound is made, for example by a gong, to begin the circle, and the person speaking holds a designated object, such as a talking stick, meaning that only that person can speak.
MHS graduate Shayla George, class of 2020, described circle as a safe space of trust where people can talk. “The first thing said is ‘What happens in this circle stays within this circle,’ and then the conversation starts with a simple question, before a theme is introduced.” The theme can be anything, but in situations where there’s a conflict, it will address the conflict, giving all parties a chance to be heard.
George said there was a conflict between two groups of Montclair High School students at the beginning of last year, and they used circle to work it out. “So far no one has refused to have a sit-down,” she said.
Montclair Kimberley Academy 2020 graduate Madison Green said the Black Student Experience Task Force at her school had been pushing to use restorative justice instead of the traditional method of punishing the perpetrator and not doing anything for the person harmed.
“We need a safe space where a victim can talk to the perpetrator instead of a black hole where we share our grievances and never know what happens with it,” Green said.
This past January, MKA did incorporate some RJ practices into a Quaker-style meeting held after a racially charged incident at the school. Green was not satisfied with it: “We were told it was an open space for people to talk, and a lot of people did get up and speak, but there really wasn’t any resolution, and a lot of people left crying. I think the problem was no one had any background on what it was we were doing there.”
Some positives did come out of it, though, Green said. The meeting “allowed people to think about whether or not something they said or did had hurt someone. And hurt people realized they’re not alone; they’re normal. It also allowed teachers to see that racial incidents were happening in their classrooms when they weren’t looking.