Keeping children and teens in class and away from trouble is a major objective of Sociology Professor Carolyn Boyes-Watson and the Center for Restorative Justice at Suffolk University.

The center aims to interrupt the “school-to-prison pipeline” by encouraging restorative justice practices that avoid suspensions and thus lead to more students remaining in school and graduating.

A traditional approach to student discipline focuses on who was violated, who did it, and what punishment is deserved. However, the restorative justice model focuses on who or what was harmed, what is needed to repair the harm, and whose role and responsibility is it to make this repair, according to Boyes-Watson, the founder and director of the Center for Restorative Justice.

The center conducts one- and two-day training sessions in restorative justice practices for Boston Public Schools teachers and staff. And a grant has allowed the center to extend these initiatives to school personnel in Connecticut, Vermont, and New York State.

As a result of its collaboration with the center, the Boston Public Schools revamped its code of conduct, which now includes restorative practices as an alternative form of discipline and employs positive alternatives to support learning.

For example, a student damaged a school sink, and the custodian had to miss a family event to deal with it. Through a center-trained facilitator, the student met with the custodian, engaged in a dialogue, and agreed to assist the custodian in making a permanent repair. 

Punishment that fails students

When schools seek to punish students by severing them from classes, they take the first steps to feeding the school-to-prison pipeline, said Boyes-Watson.

“It has been widely shown that urban schools disproportionately suspend and expel students of color,” she said. “Restorative justice is one way to interrupt that pipeline and keep kids in school and out of the juvenile justice system.”

Suspended students usually fall behind in their classes, increasing the possibility that they will drop out. Even in-school suspensions remove students from the classroom, thus increasing the likelihood that they will fail.

Suffolk undergraduate students who have been trained at the center get involved in restorative justice by facilitating peace circles, through which people engage in restorative dialogue. School systems across the country, including New York City and San Francisco, are using the book Circle Forward, coauthored by Boyes-Watson, to incorporate the practice of peace circles into the everyday life of the school community.

Emily Ford, Class of 2018, who connected with the center last year through one of her professors, said that Restorative Justice is a process that combines her academic interests. Ford is pursuing a double major in Psychology and Sociology, with a concentration in Criminal Justice.

In just over a year Ford has become a peace circle facilitator, working with middle and high school students, as well as some adults. She recalls working with a student who had family problems while in middle school.

“Seeing her a year later in high school as a happy student with friends was very rewarding,” said Ford.

Breaking the cycle of violence and revenge

Emotions run high when the Center engages in Peace Circles that bring together mothers of homicide victims, high school students who are impacted by violence, and Suffolk-trained undergraduates. The goal is to break the cycle of revenge that drives violence in a community by focusing on accountability, justice, and forgiveness.

“These community members have been afflicted by violence,” said Boyes-Watson. “They have lost friends and family members to violence. They are struggling with feelings of revenge and confusion—feelings that there is no justice. These circles are a way for them to explore seeking justice other than revenge. It opens the door to the possibilities for breaking the cycle of revenge that drives so much of the violence in the community.”

Working with the center’s restorative justice program, one of the mothers has met with two of the young men who are incarcerated for her son’s murder.

“The journey was about feeling justice for herself,” said Boyes-Watson. “We can’t bring their sons back. But every time a mother of a homicide victim sees a person graduate from high school and not get caught up in revenge, this is a form of justice for her. That is what the Circle Project is all about.”

The center’s role as a training resource is an outgrowth of its original mission of educating institutions and community stakeholders about the restorative justice process. It has a number of initiatives that take place outside of school settings.

Restorative justice projects in Connecticut’s juvenile detention facilities are aimed at reducing disproportionate minority confinement. And a partnership with the Boston-based Home for Little Wanderers provides training for youth and staff on restorative practices.

“Now that so many people know what it is, they want to know how to do it,” said Boyes-Watson as she looks forward to the 20th anniversary of the center in 2017.