ELKHART — When the current leaders of the Center for Community Justice wanted to deepen its work in local schools, they turned to founder Howard Zehr for input.
Zehr recommended Kathy Evans, a Virginia author and educator who brings to schools the values that he wanted to instill in Elkhart County 40 years ago.
“I contacted Howard and said we really want to do this right in the schools. And we’ve tried and we’ve done some things really well, and we’re not sure if we could up our game,” said CCJ board President Kathy Royer. “And he said, well if you need somebody then you need Kathy Evans.”
Evans recently met with staff and area educators for several days to discuss the principles of restorative justice in education. The principles view wrongdoing as a violation of interpersonal relationships, which needs to be addressed before people can move forward.
Evans described it as the view that nobody in a community is disposable. She said it’s an age-old value that’s especially needed today, in a society that often treats people like criminal offenders as expendable.
“I think a lot of what we’re seeing with restorative justice, both in the criminal justice system and in schools, is a return to a way of being in relationship that sees everyone as valuable and no one as expendable,” she said.
‘Learning to be human’
According to Evans, restorative justice practices in schools can be as simple as a talking circle – where everyone has an equal chance to be heard – or as systemic and intentional as making sure everyone is able to pass a test, no matter how much remediation they need. For individual teachers, it can mean trying to understand why a kid acts out, and addressing the cause rather than just the behavior.
She said teachers across the country are doing amazing things in their classrooms, often against the odds, and restorative justice celebrates that by giving it a name.
Working with schools is something the center has been doing for years, but Royer said they’re looking at ways to keep the momentum going.
“There have been partnerships with the schools for quite a few years, and they’ve been kind of piecemeal,” she said. “And we’re really trying to think more deliberately about how to do this so that it doesn’t fade, and so that we can deepen and expand the work that we’re doing. So it’s not new, but it’s just stopping and taking a look at it.”
Royer explained how applying the principle of restorative justice to schools is different from what the CCJ often does, which focuses on reconciling criminal offenders and their victims. She said while the center aims to repair harm, Evans’s work seeks to prevent harm.
“There’s less harm when you live restoratively. So if you live in a classroom restoratively, you’re going to have less problem with harm,” Royer said. “But when you live together anywhere, there’s always conflict. That’s our area of expertise really, not being afraid of conflict and helping people find ways to address conflict.”
Conflict resolution is particularly important in schools, where children are still developing mentally and emotionally, Evans said.
“We’re not dealing with adults, we’re dealing with children, who are still developing their morals, their self-regulation, their understanding of what community looks like,” she said. “So we have to pay deeper attention to those preventative things, not just as a way of preventing harm but also as a way of helping children develop in all of those ways – socially, emotionally, cognitively – and help them to be part of the community in healthy ways.”
Restorative justice practices benefit teachers as well, Evans said, since it recognizes their need for dignity and respect.
“That’s particularly important in the school house, because kids and teachers and administrators – they’re kind of stuck in the building together,” she said. “They have to figure out how to make it work.”
“It’s like a lab of learning to be human,” Royer added. “I mean, it’s so formative.”