Restorative Practices: 

Healing Hurts, Remediating Wrongdoing as an Alternative to Traditional School Discipline

Interview with Kerri Berkowitz by Cristina Perea Kaplan

Cristina Perea Kaplan: For people unfamiliar with Restorative Justice, which is often called Restorative Justice Practices when used in the school setting rather than in courts, could you explain them? Also, would you explain the two purposes for using Restorative Justice Practices, or RJP?

Kerry Berkowitz: I’d be happy to. I see Restorative Justice Practices as extremely multifaceted in nature. RJP is both an approach and set of practices that are based on principles grounded in the traditions of indigenous cultures from around the world, that underscore the value of respect, compassion, dignity, and inclusion of all members of the community. 

It’s helpful to introduce Restorative Justice Practices as being both proactive and responsive in nature, although, the two are not distinct and separate from one another as the guiding principles and values are the same for both and always remain a driving force behind the practice. 

On the one hand, RJP emphasizes the importance of trusting relationships as central to building a strong community in the school with the intention to foster the type of environment that students need to learn and teachers need to effectively teach. This is the proactive aspect of RJP. Examples of these practices are: co-creating school-wide and classroom values, providing opportunities for intentional relationship building, establishing a culture of circle practice, and encouraging the use of affective language which genuinely expresses feelings or emotions in relation to whatever behavior or situation may be going on. 

But we also know that even when very strong relationships exist there is, most likely, still going to be conflict and sometimes really challenging behaviors that cause harm to people or the community. There will be most likely be less conflict and acts of harm when teachers and staff take the necessary time to build a caring and supportive environment in the school, but none-the-less, it’s really important to have systems and a general approach that will effectively respond to student disciplinary incidents. 

Therefore, RJP offers what’s called a restorative discipline approach and encompasses a set of responsive practices in which behavior infractions in the school are viewed through the lens of restorative justice philosophy. One that brings everyone who has been affected by an incident together in an inclusive process to discover the root cause of behaviors as well as how that behavior impacted or potentially caused harm to someone. The intention with this approach is to repair damaged relationships and restore the community, giving voice to all those directly impacted by an incident, and together coming to consensus on a plan of action to make things as right as possible moving forward.

Kerri Berkowitz partners with multiple school systems in the successful transformation of school climate and disciplinary practices through the implementation of Restorative Justice Practices (RJP).  Initially working as a counselor in a middle school in Southeast San Francisco, Kerri witnessed the undeniable relationship between climate and academic achievement. Kerri served as the district RJP Administrator where she established a sustainable RJP implementation effort. Currently, Kerri serves multiple schools and districts across the nation as an RJP trainer and implementation specialist, specializing in training, strategic planning and the integration of climate initiatives. Kerri can be contacted at [email protected].

Altogether, RJP includes interventions such as repairing harm circles, conferences, and alternatives to suspension or expulsion when harm has occurred, as well as practices that help to prevent harm and conflict by building a sense of belonging, safety, and shared social responsibility throughout the school community. 

CPK: Where and when did you first encounter RJP, and what convinced you that this was something you wanted to learn more about and ultimately teach?

KB: About 10 years ago, prior to learning about Restorative Justice Practices, I was working as a school social worker in Visitation Valley Middle School in South East San Francisco; a part of my role was to oversee a violence prevention grant which required me to pay special attention to and coordinate efforts to strengthen the climate of the school. I was invited to become a district trainer in Tribes Learning Communities, which introduced teachers to a process of student engagement and participation through cooperative learning in the classroom. This was an intensive four-day training. 

One summer I facilitated three of these trainings back to back, and training after training I was blown away by the positive response from the teachers. In each training as we progressed with the content there seemed to be a gradual increase in their levels of inspiration. When I inquired about what was happening, I learned that it wasn’t necessarily the content of cooperative learning that was so powerful for them, but it was the preparation stage of intentionally taking time to foster and develop trusting relationships among the students that was getting them fired up and excited. 

Because if we think about it, it takes tremendous effort to reach the point where students can truly cooperate and work well with one another to accomplish a task in a small group. This is something difficult even for adults to do. It requires trust, patience, negotiation, knowing when to step up and step back, how to prevent conflict and deal with it when it arises.

It was through my experience with these groups of teachers where I came to genuinely feel the importance of school being a place of belonging for students. This is also commonly described as school connectedness which incorporates feelings of being a part of the school, that adults in the school care about them and their learning, that they feel close to people in school, have supportive relationships with adults, and that teachers and staff consistently treat them with respect.

I realized that during the training the teachers were reconnecting to the inspiration they felt when they initially started teaching. That in order to establish an environment conducive for learning, investing time in intentional relationship building is critical.

There is no shortage of research that documents the positive impact of trusting relationships and strong feelings of connectedness on learning and academic achievement. Few would argue against the importance of the role that building strong relationships play in relation to educational outcomes for students, which made me question the reason why the numerous groups of teachers who participated in these trainings on cooperative learning communities felt so far removed from this critical component and condition for learning. It wasn’t as if they weren’t individually building relationships with students in their classrooms. 

I discovered that the reason was because building and sustaining positive trusting relationships was not something that was prioritized or even consistently spoken about in their schools or at a District level. At that time the messages the teachers were hearing loud and clear was only about the importance of academic proficiency, benchmarks, and standardized testing. I realized that during the training the teachers were reconnecting to the inspiration they felt when they initially started teaching. That in order to establish an environment conducive for learning, investing time in intentional relationship building was critical.

 So, back in 2009 when I first heard that the San Francisco Unified School Board had passed a resolution to introduce Restorative Justice Practices, I jumped on board because the relational values and principles of RJP hugely resonated with what I had discovered during the Tribes trainings. I saw RJP as a means to truly make our schools a place of belonging for all students. 

School culture is often explained by the question “When one walks through the doors of the building, what is the general feeling one gets?” The vision of our schools consistently being a place of belonging became a driving force of motivation for me. Initially it was just about students, but it quickly grew to include the adults in the school and families too. 

In addition to deeply resonating with the relationship building quality of Restorative Justice Practices, my first encounter with Restorative Justice actually occurred numerous years prior to my experience working in the schools. I first learned about a non-retributive justice approach during the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the late 90s. I followed the TRC as closely as I could and was deeply moved and impacted on a very personal level by it. Having been born into and living the first 11 years of my life in apartheid South Africa there was no escaping the impact of living in a racially segregated society, but it wasn’t until some years later after immigrating to the United States with my family that I was able to learn about and feel the bigger picture of just how detrimental apartheid was for the majority of the South African people.

Honestly, everything changed for me when I learned about and began practicing RJP. It was as if I developed a whole new set of leadership skills as I came to learn the importance of working with others and not doing things to them or for them.

I think back to the late 80s when my parents (along with thousands of other white South Africans) were deciding to the leave the country. There was great anxiety and fear about what would happen as a result of the abolishment of apartheid. Many people feared a civil war and therefore decided to leave the country with their families—my family included. 

Yet, under the great Nelson Mandela’s leadership, not only was there not a civil war, but he very strongly advocated for and led the country towards forgiveness and racial reconciliation. Through the TRC, he challenged a traditional, punitive approach of justice and instead provided the opportunity for thousands of individuals directly responsible for atrocious acts of human rights violations and crimes to very publicly take responsibility for their actions directly to the people they harmed. This process allowed for true accountability, reparation of harms, and restoration of relationships. It was beyond my comprehension how a man so greatly mistreated and abused not only found it in his heart, but was able to lead others towards, healing and forgiveness. 

I have always been very moved by Desmond Tutu’s description of the TRC process. I feel his words beautifully capture the essence of what Restorative Justice is all about: 

Retributive justice—in which an impersonal state hands down punishment with little consideration for victims and hardly any for perpetrators—is not the only form of justice. I contend that there is another kind of justice, restorative justice, which was characteristic of traditional African jurisprudence. Here the central concern is not retribution or punishment but, in the spirit of ubuntu, the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships. This kind of justice seeks to rehabilitate both the victim and the perpetrator, who should be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the community he or she has injured by his or her offence. This is a far more personal approach, which sees the offence as something that has happened to people and whose consequence is a rupture in relationships. Thus we should claim that justice, restorative justice, is being served when efforts are being made to work for healing, for forgiveness and for reconciliation.” (Tutu, 1999, p. 51)

So when the San Francisco Board Members discovered and began advocating for a restorative approach towards Justice in our schools, I very strongly wanted to be a part of it. 

CPK: I know that your training was as a social worker. Did you first practice individual psychotherapy or group therapy before working with SFUSD on training teachers and implementing Restorative Justice Practices in schools? If so, do you see a correlation or overlap in these two ways of working with individual and group issues?

KB: Yes, absolutely. Before I transitioned into the role of Restorative Practices Coordinator and later as Program Administrator for SFUSD, I worked as a school social worker for five years. In addition to working with the teachers and staff around school climate improvement, a large part of my role was to provide group therapy for students as well as some individual counseling. I facilitated numerous groups on grief and loss, social skills, anger management, and self care. Honestly, everything changed for me when I learned about and began practicing RJP. It was as if I developed a whole new set of leadership skills as I came to learn the importance of working with others and not doing things to them or for them. This truly transformed the way I interacted with others. I quickly saw how I was enabling the students and not empowering them by holding high expectations of them while providing the support they needed to make necessary changes in their lives for themselves.

The restorative questions are a powerful tool that fluently guide people through a process of honest sharing, respectful listening, empathy development and resolution.

Once I came to know how essential relationship building and creating an inclusive environment of shared responsibility was (along with gaining specialized skills in circle keeping), the effectiveness of the groups I facilitated dramatically deepened. One of the last groups I facilitated before my position changed was an anger management group with eight, 8th grade boys. I will never forget the positive impact this group had for the boys as well as myself, and I hugely attribute it to the application of restorative principles and practices. 

While the content of the skill building activities were essential for their learning, I strongly believe that it was the sense of inclusion and belonging that we established together by taking the time required to build trusting relationships with one another using circles that allowed for them to feel safe enough to break through their self consciousness and let their guard down. This allowed them to enter into a zone of vulnerability where true learning, self-discovery and connection occurred. 

Session after session I was blown away by the tenderness and support these supposedly “tough” and “angry” young men showed one another. In time I was able to move away from the role of facilitator and they emerged as leaders, taking control while maintaining the integrity of the group and never losing sight of the reason they formed as a group in the first place. 

CPK: There has been at least one study that discusses the probability that some students project their parental issues, or complexes, onto teachers much as clients project onto therapists. When this happens, teachers can find themselves getting triggered by these projections, or respond from their own complexes, especially those who are unaware of these dynamics. As a result, many disagreements and power struggles can occur. Can RJP address these types of dynamics only in reparative circles? Or do you think that some preventative work can be done with this issue in school classrooms and teacher education programs to address this very real issue before harm occurs?

KB: Repairing harm circles certainly can assist in situations where teachers and students get caught up in power struggles and disagreements. When a teacher and student come together and engage in a process of restorative dialogue they may come to better understand the greater context in which the disagreements are occurring. The restorative questions are a powerful tool that fluently guides people through a process of honest sharing, respectful listening, empathy development and resolution. The core questions are:

What happened, and what were you thinking at the time?

What have you thought about it since?

Who has been affected and how?

What about this is/has been hardest for you?

What needs to happen to make things as right as possible moving forward?

Using this approach and practice can help both the student and the teacher reflect on their relationship and what is causing the patterns of disconnect or heightened emotions or triggers that ultimately leads to power struggles. 

But your question is correct in pointing out that not only can restorative practices assist when harm has already occurred, but by proactively applying the principles along with the practices it is certainly possible to create an environment in the classroom or school that could prevent such interactions between teachers and students. The inherent nature of restorative practices challenges the traditional hierarchy of power dynamics in the school setting because it emphasizes the importance of working “with” others, valuing all voices in the community, and building trusting relationships. 

We can’t underestimate the significance and amount of effort it sometimes takes to build positive relationships with others. Sometimes it requires a lot of work, especially in such instances as you described in your question. The great thing is that when the importance of building trusting relationships is emphasized and reinforced across the school community as it is in a whole school implementation effort, people are then given the space to slow down and reflect on the quality of relationships which would allow for one to pay more attention to the ways one is triggered by another’s actions and how one’s actions or responses in turn impact the other. RJP is about mutual responsibility and taking ownership of one’s actions and feelings. 

Using affective language is also a proactive approach to effectively communicate and address behaviors that may be triggering because it requires one to gain greater awareness of how one is feeling in relation to specific behaviors or situations and when communicated that way, helps the other person see how their actions are impacting those around them. But I find it very important to always convey that each person is ultimately responsible for one’s own feelings and using affective language does not give one permission to impose one’s emotions (or how they are feeling triggered) onto others; rather, it is necessary for one to take ownership of how and what one is feeling and then rationally decide if it will benefit all those involved to be communicated. In general, using affective language consistently helps to create an environment that allows for genuine and heartfelt communication.

CPK: Do you find that valuing social & emotional intelligence goes hand-in-hand with valuing the processes and principals of Restorative Justice Practices? How are they linked?

KB: Over the past ten years there has been much growth in the field of social emotional learning (SEL) in our school communities, which is very exciting to see. School climate and culture has emerged from the shadows and is now an active topic of discussion and research, and is now recognized as a critical component of the learning experience. There is a very strong link between RJP and SEL. SEL programs are very important as they teach critical competencies such as self and social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, responsible decision making, etc. These are essential qualities that aid in one’s personal and social development and there are numerous research studies that show a strong correlation between SEL and academic achievement. 

Restorative Justice Practices support the learning of SEL competencies through real life experience. Students gain valuable life social emotional skills through their participation in restorative practices as the practices themselves (such as community circles or restorative dialogue) provide opportunities for students to actualize and learn or strengthen these skills. For example, participating in a repairing-harm circle requires one to recognize one’s own emotions and the influence it had on ones actions, which aids in the building of self-awareness; or by participating in a community-building circle students are given the opportunity to develop their relationship-building skills by practicing attentive listening and being encouraged to put potential judgments aside and accept perspectives that may be different to their own, honoring each person’s right to their own thoughts, experiences, and cultural identity and norms. 

CPK: Is there anything that has surprised you about teachers’ or students’ responses to Restorative Practices when they were fully implemented in schools?

KB: Oh wow! There is so much to say here because RJP is multi-layered. It not only offers a distinct set of practices, but it also introduces a different way of being in our schools.

Truly it’s been a phenomenal experience and journey for me introducing Restorative Practices to school communities. I very quickly learned that each teacher and school community will have their own unique response to these powerful practices. For some, this approach will naturally resonate for them and it will be a seamless process of infusing the principles and practices into their classroom culture and teaching practice, but for others it’s much more challenging. Introducing a relational school-wide approach into a well established traditional school system is truly a revolutionary paradigm shift and requires a significant amount of effort and resilience, specifically when moving away from punitive, exclusionary discipline practices. 

I would like to say, I am surprised by the number of people who struggle with this disciplinary paradigm shift, but in actuality, I can understand. Human beings are complex organisms, change is hard, and this way of being is not consistently reflected or encouraged in our current school systems and greater society—yet. 

A restorative school culture and practices help to reveal what is really going on in each moment; it calls for mutual responsibility and authentic interactions—among other things. As I mentioned before, it breaks apart the traditional hierarchical structures that create a divide and separation among people and instead encourages interactions, one human being to another, while honoring and valuing the various roles and responsibilities one may hold within the school system. This is a challenging but very necessary shift for the benefit of our youth as well as all members of the school community.