Siobhan Davenportl | SDavenport@crittentonservices.org
I was recently appointed to the Montgomery County Taskforce on School Safety. Alongside Councilmembers Will Jawando, Craig Rice, and other community leaders and students, we will craft a roadmap to police-free schools and safer learning environments for youth.
This issue is personal to me. Not only am I the parent of two teenagers, but Crittenton works with Black and Brown teen girls who live in communities with the highest incidents of poverty and violence in our region. In our Declare Equity for Girls Report—a landmark study that revealed the obstacles girls face in achieving education equity, girls shared that their school environments were not conducive to learning and identified persistent bullying and difficult interactions with teachers and staff as some of their primary concerns.
Safe and supportive environments, whether at school, home, or in the community, are essential to unlocking the potential of our youth—no matter their backgrounds. Here’s how to use a Restorative Justice Framework to create safer schools and communities for our teen girls as they prepare for the new school year.
“Bad vibes everywhere! Negativity is everywhere in the school building. Nobody can get along. It’s always something with somebody.” – A Crittenton girl from the Declare Equity for Girls Report
Restorative justice seeks to repair damaged relationships. Before any learning takes place, administrators must first acknowledge that the relationship between staff and students is damaged. Prior to the pandemic, the trauma that some youth experienced in the community manifested as difficult behavior in the classroom. Teachers and staff bore the brunt of these interactions on top of demands to perform at underfunded schools in challenged communities. The result was despair. Now, after a global pandemic and an emotionally exhausting school year, we should expect students and staff will bring some historical trauma and current frustrations into the classroom too.
“The teachers are always talking about ‘you have to respect them.’ You have to respect me if you want respect.” – A Crittenton girl from the Declare Equity for Girls Report
Trauma-informed care starts with creating a safe space. Safe spaces create cultures of mutual respect. Administrators can mend their relationships with students by establishing new dynamics with each other. Acknowledging the leadership of another person is crucial to fostering respect. At Crittenton, we position our program coordinators to become the trusted and caring adult who is a partner in a girl’s success. They do this by seeing and respecting teens as experts in their lives. Girls are then excited to be a part of Crittenton’s sacred sisterhood and activate their inner leader. A similar experience can be replicated in the classroom. The most successful educators create safe environments to learn and recognize the leadership of teens to interpret or reimagine information to deepen their learning.
“I don’t have any negative feelings towards my school because after a while, you just zone out.”– A Crittenton girl from the Declare Equity for Girls Report
Restorative Justice Framework contends that everyone has a personal responsibility to restore the relationship and create a better future. We open every cohort with a group-building activity. A simple yet effective activity is Group Agreements. Group Agreements maintain the structure and order of the group and also encourage personal responsibility to the cohort. Teachers can interpret this exercise for the classroom. Create space for students to write their desired rules, needs, and expectations of the classroom to do their best learning. Once the class has created a comprehensive list, give students an opportunity to decide agreements are necessary. Also, give the class a chance to suggest consequences for breaking the agreements. Simple exercises like this give teens a chance to express themselves, any hidden needs, and also feel ownership and autonomy in their education.
“The drama stops people from learning.”– A Crittenton girl from the Declare Equity for Girls Report
Toxic learning environments shut students down. Administrators, teachers, and school staff must work to repair the culture of negative schools to reignite the desire to learn. Restorative justice acknowledges that all damage cannot be repaired; however, change must begin immediately and fully for parties to gain their self-respect and respect for others. Adults have control over the following: providing students with adequate school supplies and better-funded schools, ensuring staff is trained in culturally competent teaching practices and undergoing unconscious bias and gender-bias training which impacts academic performance. I also recommend increasing the number of mental health specialists and trauma-informed counselors to show commitment to providing the proper care and resources needed to meet the needs of students and to transform the school culture.
“One of the positive things about my school is some of my teachers’ support and give tough love on the bad days.” – A Crittenton girl from the Declare Equity for Girls Report
The restorative justice process ends with reintegration. Parties must contribute to and collaborate on a new path forward. Teens will need time to reintegrate into structured learning and social environments with school staff and their friends. Administrators cannot assume that things can or should go back to normal. In DC alone, more than 40% of students are considered at-risk youth. Additionally, our internal needs assessment revealed that 22% of girls took on additional caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic. Returning to normal is not an option. The old normal resulted in poor academic achievement, discriminatory discipline, and ultimately the push out of Black and brown girls in schools. The new normal must be better for Black and brown teen girls and we must engage them in developing solutions that heal their trauma and match their current and future needs.