Restorative Justice Montclair projects aim to address student needs post-pandemic
A student drop-in center with counseling, a mobile library, a student serenity room and a farm-to-table garden are new welcomed additions supplementing the Montclair High School’s restorative justice program.
Restorative Justice Montclair has been working to make students feel safe and heard in Montclair schools since 2018. For nearly five years, the program’s staff has worked to “cultivate an equitable environment” where all individuals “will benefit from shared, learned experiences,” according to its mission posted on the district website.
In September 2018, Montclair started implementing restorative justice with students and parents at the high school, and last year, programs began at Glenfield Middle School, Renaissance Middle School and Edgemont Elementary School in 2019. The program provides “integrated methods to address conflict through reflection, reconciliation and accountability where harm has occurred,” according to the district website.
But surveys conducted during the 2021-22 school year by Montclair High School administrators and student representatives on the Montclair Board of Education revealed that Montclair High School students were missing one thing in particular — feeling like a part of something bigger than themselves.
“After everything they've been through, they really needed to feel a sense of belonging,” Vice PrincipalMirta Alsina said at a June 14 open house event held by Restorative Justice Montclair. “That was the overarching theme.”
Watching students and staff struggle through the coronavirus pandemic and remote learning, the Restorative Justice staff knew they wanted to do more to meet the evolving and intensified needs of the district and community.
During the June 14 open house at Montclair High School, Restorative Justice Montclair shared new resources and the new spaces available to the school community.
“We wanted to take the needs of students and the needs of staff after the pandemic very seriously,” Gayl Shepard, the lead Restorative Justice Montclair Teacher on Special Assignment, said at the event. “We didn't want to just talk about what the social-emotional needs would be — we wanted to respond to them.”
The district has dedicated restorative justice staff members who have been working to train administrators and other staff in the practices of restorative justice. Restorative justice is “an approach to transforming school culture toward reparations and relationships and away from punishment and suspension,” according to the district’s website.
But efforts to implement restorative justice go beyond school walls, Shepard said, thanking the Montclair Education Association, the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence and several individuals for their continued support.
“This is the manifestation of a basic vision that we wrote down, and now we live in the experience of it,” Shepard said. “It has been a labor of love.”
The new spaces provide all students with opportunities at the high school to feel safe and seek counseling and other resources, part of Restorative Justice Montclair’s mission.
The open house also featured the Restorative Justice Circle Room, located inside the school’s media center. A main practice of restorative justice 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.
Students, teachers and administrators all spend time in the Circle Room, working through conflicts, holding weekly lunch conversations and learning about restorative justice. The space contributes to the positive culture that Freeman is trying to model for staff and students, he said.
But the staff wanted to do more for the students.
The new facilities are intentionally spread out through the main high school building to increase access for students, Freeman said at the open house.
The student drop-in center is a space for students to relax, hang out with friends and escape from the surrounding hustle and bustle of the high school, Alsina said. The center is open during lunch, but students can also make appointments to spend time in the room, which is always staffed by a school counselor, she said.
The former student resource officer’s office and storage room turned student center features relaxing activities — a bulletin board-sized coloring page, a magnetic Scrabble game, a chalkboard and colorful chalk.
Students said they needed a space where they can always find a counselor, Freeman said. And the space allows counselors to get to know their students better, Alsina added.
The mobile library, located outside the school, along Park Street, was created for both students and community members, Freeman said. The repurposed metal newspaper stand, featuring artwork by students, holds books about restorative justice and alternative discipline.
The serenity room, similar to the student drop-in center, is designed to be a safe space for students. But it is meant to be a resource particularly for students who are having a hard time, Alsina said at the open house.
“A lot of students struggle with anxiety or just all the pressure of everything that’s going on,” Alsina said. “They can just sit and have a quiet space.”
The room is staffed by a student assistance counselor, available if students want to talk. A few days before the open house event, Alsina brought a student experiencing anxiety and crying in the main office down to the serenity room, she said.
“I brought her down here, her counselor sat with her and she was able to just have that time,” Alsina said. “She just needed that time.”
The serenity room is also stocked with relaxing activities and mindfulness aids — a small sand garden, an essential oil diffuser, a desktop water feature and small rocks to build standing structures.
The final Restorative Justice Montclair project at Montclair High School is a farm-to-table garden, nestled into the high school’s central courtyard. The garden’s harvest goes to the school’s cafeteria to be served to students.
The garden, brimming with lettuce, rosemary, parsley and more, is maintained by high school students like senior Sanaa Quander, who gave a tour of the garden during the open house, explaining which green leaf was which and sharing that her favorite raised bed housed the herbs.
The raised garden beds have also been painted by students — a fiery red chicken and a purple-shelled snail appear below curly kale. Dozens of painted rocks also sit beneath each bed, with words of encouragement and splashes of bright greens and blues.
Next to the garden, a newly built deck with picnic tables will also provide space for students to spend time outdoors.
School officials are also hoping to put additional resources and spaces in the George Inness Annex, which houses freshmen, during the 2022-23 school year, Freeman said.
“Restorative justice is about relationships and community, but also listening to our students and what they need,” Freeman said. “This has been a tough two years for everyone.”