Guest column: Amherst’s burgeoning Restorative Justice program

  • Amherst Regional Middle School Co-principal Joseph Smith welcomes seventh-grader Richard Sena to his office in March. A Restorative Justice program takes place at the school. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Friday, August 30, 2019

Due to student testimonials at a Jan. 15, 2019, school committee meeting (for reference, please see the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee meeting as recorded by and posted on Amherst Media website), and as discussed in an April 16 Daily Hampshire Gazette article, the public has become aware of a new Restorative Justice program in the Amherst schools.

Restorative Justice is a revolutionary way of transforming traditional discipline. Traditional discipline has been proven to marginalize and discriminate against students of color and poor white students. Restorative Justice draws on indigenous circle practices — a process by which a group of people come together to discuss meaningful and challenging issues.

The program is something to get excited about given its potential to decrease academic and discipline disparities between students of color and white students.

Yet the story of how Restorative Justice emerged in the district is left untold. It did not just materialize overnight, nor was it a top-down initiative from administrators. The program is the result of ongoing efforts of activists in this community who carry on a tradition of grassroots organizing.

The community organizing and activism goes back decades. Included in this work is the NAACP involvement in ARPS during the early 1990s and later, and the formation of Occupy Amherst Schools In Solidarity (OASIS). Members of OASIS, who advocate on behalf of marginalized students, kick-started the route to Restorative Justice by intervening in a case with a student who had been targeted by adults in the Amherst School District.

OASIS members elicited the help of a local Restorative Justice professional and the circle practice was so successful that administrators and others began to see its power.

During this period, a teacher of color at Amherst Regional High School was being racially harassed, which led to the formation of the School Equity Task Force, a subcommittee of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee. A member of the SETF, who was also an OASIS member, proposed that the schools adopt a Restorative Justice program to address its equity problems. A smaller group was formed specifically to focus on the idea.

At an Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee meeting in early 2017, members of the SETF proposed and advocated that a Restorative Justice Program be created in all schools in the district. The Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee chair at the time encouraged SETF members and the superintendent to make it happen.

The result — a small budget that would allow the hiring of a staff member for the 2017-2018 school year to begin the program in the high school. Fast forward to a few months ago, when the budget for the program has over doubled thanks to the ongoing advocacy from SETF members, school personnel, students who have provided testimonies of the efficacy of the program and the ongoing efforts of the staff members who direct the program at the middle school and high school.

The increased budget will allow the program to expand at the middle school level. A Restorative Justice program at this level, during these transformative years for students, is especially critical.

This success has come with challenges. At various school committee meetings, some of our elected members questioned the need for such a program, and whether or not the discipline disparities and academic achievement gaps — that such a program aims to address — actually exist.

ARPS is part of the systemic racism that perpetuates and sustains such disparities. Students of color and poor white students in Amherst and across the country are disproportionately targeted for their behaviors. This targeting has been proven to be the framework of the school-to-prison pipeline.

The Restorative Justice program is a step in the right direction, as it takes a proactive approach to address the student-to-student and teacher-to-student relationships by using circle practice. In lieu of taking a punitive approach, such as suspensions and expulsions, Restorative Justice emphasizes dialogue and uses circles and other restorative practices to address conflict.

This practice allows students and adults to discuss and resolve issues by identifying, addressing, and learning about the root causes of conflict that cause trauma in peoples lives, such as white supremacy and structural racism, heteronormativity, transphobia, misogyny, xenophobia and class discrimination against the poor to name a few.

The School Equity Task Force has begun to build a coalition between community members, school committee members, school administrators, school staff and students of the Amherst district. This dynamic group is essential to truly shift the current disciplinary patterns.

In the near future, we would also like to include unions and judicial system representation. The restorative justice program is one of multiple prongs aimed to permanently dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

This column was written by several members of the School Equity Task Force, including Kathleen Anderson, Mary Lou Conca and Sonji Johnson-Anderson.