Cindy sits across from me in what is now called The Justice Center at Turners Falls High School in Montague, about 20 miles north of Amherst. The room is brightly decorated with student art, there is a coffee machine and some candy on a table, and behind me on the wall is a quote from the mystic Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
Cindy (a pseudonym) smiles, though she is painfully embarrassed. Last year she was suspended for fighting. Now she sits across from me after having thrown a cafeteria tray and several other things at two boys. She is upset — still in fight or flight mode. We just chat for a while, about the weather and her weekend, her friends. Eventually I know she is ready, and I ask a question to begin the real work of our meeting. “Cindy, what happened?”
When it comes to student misbehavior, most schools have long practiced a basic system of crime and punishment, isolating the perceived “offender” through detention or suspension. Until this school year, that’s what we did at Turners Falls. But during the summer I was trained in a system called restorative justice, an approach that focuses on nonjudgmental discussion, developing empathy, and repairing the damage done. We’ve put it into effect for all our nearly 300 students.