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March 4, 2014

Students learn alternatives to discipline

By Mark Boshnack Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Students in the Oneonta City School District will have a better idea about an alternative to traditional discipline following a week-long series of sessions throughout the city’s schools, several involved said Monday. 

Restorative justice, or RJ, is a system of repairing harm and rebuilding trust in response to a range of misconduct on a variety of levels, according to a book on the subject. This is the first year the district has used the program. Oneonta Middle School Principal Kevin Johnson, who helped organize the week’s sessions, said the school can use restorative justice as an alternative to suspensions and other disciplines that removes students from school.

Facilitator for the week is Duke Fisher, from Learning Laboratories in Bainbridge. He led an assembly for middle school students Monday afternoon, following smaller group sessions during the day. Fisher said the “RJ circles” that students and staff modeled could be used to defuse a situation or respond to harm. His work, he said, shows “students are looking for the opportunity to tell their story.” If a safe space is provided, “they will take advantage.” 

A handbook for the practices is “The Little Book of Restorative Justice for Colleges and Universities.” The techniques are meant to precede disciplinary actions with the hope they will not be necessary, it said. 

RJ has been used in some cases in the district since the summer, Johnson said, but this week’s programs gave students a chance to learn more about the principles behind it. 

“The more we isolate students by such means as suspension, the more likelihood they are to be lost to the community,” Johnson said, noting that RJ gives victims an opportunity to feel better about the results of a response to a problem.

Some eighth-graders at the assembly gave positive feedback about the program. 

Alexa Loucks, 13, said “I thought it was really cool,” adding that because it seemed like it was reaching people, she thought it would work. 

Tristian Wellman, 14, said sometimes suspension can be more if a vacation. He said he thought RJ would provide better results. 

Helping Fisher was Saphire Baker, 13. She has experience with RJ through her guidance counselor. The program “has a better chance of working out everyday problems” or larger issues, she said.

Family Service Network education advocate Jackie Hunt was also assisting Fisher. The organization provides resources to special-needs people and their families. Hunt said her organization is looking to use restorative justice for the people it serves. She noted that Family Resource Network sees a lot of young people who go through juvenile justice and don’t learn their lessons.