By Aundreana Jones-Poole
Holt Journal Staff Reporter
Are out-of-school suspensions an effective way of handling adolescent misbehavior, or is there a better alternative?
The Restorative Justice Initiative is a non-profit program that was developed by the Resolution Services Center of Central Michigan and serves local school districts by helping students with conflict resolution and preventative tools. The program was founded in 2004 in Lansing, and currently serves multiple schools in different districts, including Hope Middle School in Holt.
“It is not uncommon that districts will have restorative practice programs,” said Greta Trice, Executive Director at the Resolutions Service Center. “Holt has a facilitator that we train and monitor at the school.”
The program aims to bring people, both victim and offender, together and teach them how to handle and resolve their conflicts.
The program uses effective conferencing and “peace circles” — which brings together victims and offenders to give the offender a deeper understanding of the consequences and the victim’s own humanity — to solve conflicts and reduce the number of days students are suspended from school.
“It’s a simple process, but complex on how it reaches out,” said Trice.
According to Francisco A. Villarruel, Associate Chair and Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Michigan State University, it is important to focus on conflict resolution and understand the underlying issues that contribute to conflict between individuals.
“Restorative justice practices are only effective if there is support and skilled mediators to help victims and perpetrators understand the underline causes,” said Villarruel.
Instead of simply suspending students and not actually searching for the foundation of the problem, the RJ program aims to get to the root of conflicts so that they are less likely to reoccur.
“Suspending students is the disciplinary part,” said Trice. “Restorative Justice is about more than discipline.”
Kristine Johnson has an 11th-grade daughter who attends Holt High School and believes that this program is a great compliment to the traditional discipline system in schools and should be expanded to other schools in the district.
“Suspending students is understandable when they’ve broken rules or misbehave,” said Johnson. “But it is important to take it a step further to understand why these things are happening in the first place and ways to prevent them from happening continuously.”
According to Villarruel, you can’t simply change students or “fix” the problem.
“You have to find a way to manage the environment by providing and helping youth to identify support systems that use proven practices,” said Villarruel.
Johnson agrees with this approach.
“If students don’t learn how to make changes to the way that they approach conflict and find different activities to partake in, they could end up in much more serious trouble than just a school suspension,” said Johnson.
Deputy Mary Hull, School Resource Officer in Holt, also hopes that the program will be implemented elsewhere in the Holt School District.
The Juvenile Accountability and Restorative Justice Project is a positive alternative to the traditional court system,” said Hull. “When students are referred to the program they and their parents are required to complete a seminar which will build peaceful relationships with one another and the community as well.”
Giving students a second chance to be able to understand the causes of their conflict and improve their interaction amongst peers, teachers, and their community as a whole can be significantly important to their future.
“With low offenders, if you keep them in communities rather than incarcerating them, they are less likely to commit higher crimes,” said Villarruel.
Trice believes that the Restorative Justice program gives students an advantage to preventing conflict that they wouldn’t otherwise get at school.
“We want people to utilize the service,” said Trice. ”It empowers students to be agents of change of their destiny and to learn problem solving.”