I am a teacher who has worked in restorative justice and youth programs. I am also a first term legislator in the Vermont House. In June, I completed a course at Vermont Law School entitled “Restorative Justice in Education Institutions.” It merged many of the issues I am passionate about into two weeks of intensive learning: youth, education, and justice. My professor, Dr. Marilyn Armour was instrumental in bringing restorative justice to many schools in Texas. I hope to follow her example and help Vermont schools embrace these effective practices.
My class at VLS gave me much to think about: Why do so many schools utilize punitive practices such as suspension and expulsion when restorative practices that build skills and support for students who exhibit behavior challenges are much more effective at guiding behavior constructively? Sending struggling students out of school only causes them to get further and further behind. We need to invest in strategies that promote healing and restore appropriate behavior. Years ago, misbehavior in a Vermont classroom might get you a wack from a ruler. Vermont has moved away from that kind of punishment but similarly ineffective strategies are being used. We need programs and interventions that teach and model skills that will change behavior. Restorative practices are what can transform and guide the prosocial behaviors we want for our children and our communities.
Last term, legislation was passed that prohibits suspension of students younger than eight years old. But what happens to an eight-year-old who exhibits challenging behavior? Removing a child from school does not help a child develop prosocial behavior. Some schools in Vermont have moved towards an all-school Restorative Justice model. Some schools use RJ reactively only to address inappropriate/problematic behavior. Yet other schools utilize prevention/proactive/community building circles to improve school climate as a way to increase positive behaviors and minimize disruptions. How well do these strategies work? We need to learn more. We need to do more to help all our kids succeed.
We have more data from outside of Vermont than we have from our own state. We need to know that Vermont schools are doing what has worked in other states. We can use these more effective practices to deal with racism, homophobic slurs, and other forms of harassment and bullying.
I am an assistant director in the Governor’s Institute for Global Issues and Youth Action and every year I hear stories from high school youth who are bullied and harassed at their school about their race, gender, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity. Vermont needs to do better at providing a safe space for all our students to learn and grow. Restorative Justice could help foster the kind of school environments where those who cause harm are held accountable and learn from their mistakes. This will also increase understanding and connections between students, teachers, and administrators to create a more cooperative and integrated learning environment where all can thrive.
I plan to introduce legislation in the next biennium which will help our schools develop into more supportive places of learning. Schools where racism, homophobia, and transphobia will not be tolerated, and where students learn to grow beyond their prejudices and forge new understanding. Some communities are working hard to develop anti-racist, supportive schools. Others have a long way to go. Let’s keep working together to build a better Vermont where all who live here can thrive.
The final paper for my law school RJ in Education class addressed how restorative justice could have brought a different end to a difficult situation in southern Vt. where racism and harassment caused a student to leave her school and file a complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission for failing to provide a safe space where she could learn. I don’t want any of our students, and particularly our students with marginalized identities who are so often the victims of bullying, to experience harassment in our schools. Restorative Justice could get us moving in the right direction. I call on my colleagues in the legislature, teachers, administrators, and all who care about kids. Let’s work together to figure this out. We must do better to build a safe, accepting community for all who make their home here in Vermont.
Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun
Serving Windham-4, and candidate for re-election to Windham-3