When Lake County High School Principal Ben Cairns served as a peaceworker in Uganda from 2003 to 2006, the country was in the midst of reintegrating child soldiers back into communities.
The Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group headed by Joseph Kony, had abducted thousands of Ugandan children over the previous decades, many of whom were turned into weapons against their own communities.
The Acholi teachers Cairns worked with were attempting to bring such children back into the classroom without corporal punishment, instead relying on traditional Acholi mediation practices for conflict resolution.
When Cairns returned to the United States, he took a job leading a restorative justice pilot program within Denver Public Schools. Cairns was working to implement the philosophy he had seen work in a Ugandan war zone: mediation as conflict resolution.
“Restorative justice is really about ‘how did you damage community and trust,’ not ‘what rule did you break,’” Cairns explained to the Herald. “Disrespect often can’t be fixed with a consequence. It needs to be a conversation.”
Since Cairns piloted the restorative justice program at DPS and advanced the practice as principal of North High School, the urban district has received national recognition for its progressive approach to discipline.
A similar cultural shift is now underway at LCHS.
Before Cairns took over as principal in 2016, Full Circle of Lake County was already implementing restorative practices at the school district, and students and staff were familiar with concepts of accountability, empathy and mediation.
“We took a lot of what Full Circle was doing, brought it in-house and made it part of every day,” Cairns said.
Though teachers were open to increasing restorative practices at the start of Cairns’ tenure, they also wanted tighter systems around student behavior.
Over the last three years, LCHS has worked to define and set disciplinary expectations. For example, students now understand that using profanity or a cell phone in class automatically equals lunch detention.
Relationship-based issues on the other hand are primarily addressed with a restorative lens.
Though the LCHS chapter of Padres & Jovenes Unidos, a student-run racial justice organization, spent 2019 advocating for clarity around issues like ‘what constitutes profanity,’ members of the group said restorative justice has improved the school culture.
For example, earlier this month, a recurring conflict between two LCHS students came to a head in the cafeteria. The boys were sent home for the day and both sets of parents expressed interest in taking the conflict to law enforcement.
Yet after talking to school administration, the families agreed to let the students attend a restorative mediation facilitated by staff.
The following day, the students, and their friends who had taken sides over the conflict, gathered in a circle. They shared personal experiences and opinions, verbalized the negative impacts of the conflict, talked about accountability and ultimately, apologized.
“We all got our frustration out and realized it was really all about rumors,” LCHS junior Anthony Mariano said of the mediation. “It’s not like we are all best friends now but we say ‘whatsup’ in the halls.”
Restorative justice is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Some mediations are a brief hallway chat between a student and a teacher during class, others are longer discussions between peers. Many referrals for mediations come from students themselves, Cairns said.
District-wide initiatives such as morning crew meetings and an Expeditionary Learning instructional model emphasize social emotional learning at an early age, equipping students with skills needed to participate in restorative practices at a later date.
Some disciplinary cases, often related to sexting and vaping, go straight to law enforcement. LCHS also responds to instances of bullying differently because the presence of power dynamics, Cairns said.
Since Cairns started at LCHS, the annual total number of suspensions has dropped by approximately 50 percent.
However the suspension rate, or the number of students suspended each year, has only decreased by about four percent. In the 2018-2019 school year, 45 students, or about 9 percent of the student body, were suspended at one point or another.
Though Cairns knows LCHS has more work to do before reaching the U.S. Department of Education’s recommended goal of a three percent suspension rate, he is proud of the school’s progress.
No demographic group at LCHS is over-represented in suspension data and students seem to agree that school culture improves each year.
“Restorative justice helps students connect with teachers,” Padres & Jovenes Unidos member Ruth Velasquez told the Herald.
Indeed, 76 percent of LCHS students responded positively when asked if teachers were respectful to them in a Panorama Student Survey this year.
“You just get along a lot better with everyone now,” Mariano said. “The tensions don’t last as long.”