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Celebrating restorative justice

Volunteers explain why they engage in restorative justice work and the hope and benefit of this model for our community

Megan Grove, an intern with Brattleboro Community Justice Center (BCJC), compiled these reflections to commemorate Restorative Justice Week, Nov. 20–27.


Every November, people around the world celebrate Restorative Justice Week.

Restorative justice is a community-based approach to harm and wrongdoing that focuses on who was harmed, how they were affected, and how reparations can be made, if possible.

Grounded in values of respect, responsibility, and relationship, restorative justice is a collaborative process that involves all stakeholders and promotes engagement and creative problem-solving.

Several organizations in Brattleboro offer programs based on restorative justice: Brattleboro Community Justice Center (BCJC), Just Schools Project, Youth Services, and Brattleboro Union High School.

As part of Brattleboro’s celebration of Restorative Justice Week, we at BCJC have asked a few local practitioners and volunteers to express why they engage in restorative justice work and the hope and benefit of restorative justice in our community.

Kathy Pell

Kathy Pell volunteers with BCJC’s Circle of Support and Accountability.

I’m new to restorative justice, in practice, though not in belief. I am just about to enter into my first Circle of Support and Accountability group, and I’m very excited.

In the process of preparation, I attended a training sponsored by the Department of Justice and, in the final hours of the day, a young man who had recently been a core member in another COSA group, spoke to our group of volunteer trainees.

This young man had had a hard life, with nearly half of his years spent behind bars. He was shy and spent much of his time speaking looking down and nervously rubbing one thumb with the fingers of his other hand.

He had become very close to one of the members of his COSA team who had spent a lot of time with him. My guess is that this was the first positive male role model this young man had ever had in his life.

At the end of his time “on stage,” I asked him what particular way the COSA group had helped him to turn his life around. What about the process had helped him stay successfully out of jail for this long?

His response was heartfelt.

“They were the first people in my life, including my family, who had ever looked at me as something more than the list of things I had done wrong,” he said.

I can’t speak for anyone else in the group, but I was struck by the power of his words and the emotion that welled behind them. How sad that he had never had anyone truly see him before. And how lucky he was to have been seen, finally.

I’m sure there was a lot of work over the year they were all together. But it seems like that one action — seeing him as a person instead of a list of mistakes and poor decisions — was the kick-starter.

I’m not being overly idealistic. I know the group I am about to enter into will face challenges, and the core member might or might not be ready to do the work needed to turn his life in a positive direction.

But I only hope I can offer that same X-ray vision, the ability to see the good in him and nurture it until he can see it for himself.

Mike Szostak

Mike Szostak is restorative justice coordinator at Brattleboro Union High School and a board member of BCJC.

As a volunteer and as an employee, I’ve spent the last 19 years using restorative approaches to help both adults and kids.

I am passionate about this work because it is the best approach we have to treat people in a humane and nurturing way by repairing relationships that become broken, by providing victims at least some of what they need to begin the recovery process, by turning negative events into learning experiences for all involved, and by addressing the needs of our community as a whole.

After being involved with hundreds of restorative justice cases, I’ve learned firsthand that it’s not a perfect system. But restorative approaches do have a much better chance of guiding people down a path of recovery and reconciliation versus punitive approaches, which often keep people on a dark path where escape becomes insurmountable.

In a world, and even in our own country, where punitive approaches have become the norm, we are fortunate to live in a community that fosters a more beneficial approach.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this restorative movement and encourage others to join us.

A former client

A former client of the Brattleboro Community Justice Center offers these words, via a letter submitted by Jackie Trepanier, BCJC program coordinator.

I have to be honest.

My first and only reason for participating in the BCJC program was to avoid the fine that I would obviously have trouble paying.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to be walking into so I took a deep breath, put on my coat of armor, and got ready to get what I deserved.

Well, it was nothing what I had expected.

There was no beating, no slave labor. Everyone had friendly faces and an urgency to know about me — me, not my crime.

I have learned so much. I have mostly learned that I’m not a bad person doing a bad thing — there are circumstances that led me down this road; it’s not who I am. I have also learned not be judgmental toward others. I have learned there is always a story behind what brought you to these bad decisions. And I have learned that your actions never affect you and you alone.

This is a great program, not just a quick fix.

Mel Motel

Mel Motel, of Brattleboro, is the founder and director of the Just Schools Project, which provides restorative practices trainings to schools and organizations. Motel also teaches Community and Restorative Justice,” a course at Community College of Vermont.

Things changed for me the moment a 9-year-old I cared about greatly was arrested in school.

Since that day in a Midwest state 12 years ago, I have planted myself firmly in the movement to end our reliance on criminalization and prisons while, at the same time, developing community-based responses to harm which actually meet people’s needs.

Some people call this model as “restorative justice”; others call it “transformative justice.”

Some call it the civil rights struggle of our time, prison abolition, or community accountability.

In schools, where I train teachers, administrators, and students, I usually call it “restorative practices.” From the internal (our minds) to the systemic (the institutions in which we exist), the restorative practices approach is a giant shift in the way we think about harm, community, and relationships.

On a practical level, restorative practices offers strategies we can use to engage people most directly involved in an incident, such as bringing people together to ask the questions, “What happened?” “Who was harmed and how?” and “What needs to happen to make things as right as possible?”

While it might sound good in theory, restorative practices in schools actually works.

Schools that have embraced restorative practices have seen increases in attendance, graduation rates, and academic performance. Use of school-based restorative practices has made a dent in the school-to-prison pipeline by challenging the discouraging disparities — racial and otherwise — of who gets disciplined and how.

Because of restorative practices, fewer students of color, low-income students, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities are getting pushed out of schools and into the corrections system.

Importantly, restorative practices changes how people think about themselves and one another. When a student is suspended or expelled (much like when we incarcerate or otherwise punish adults), the student neither faces the impact of their actions on others nor examines what is happening in their life that led them to do something hurtful.

Schools that are effectively using restorative practices create spaces where students can do this kind of reflection and, in the process, develop into emotionally adept people who can take responsibility, advocate for themselves, and make change.

Why restorative justice? Ultimately, if restorative practices in schools means one fewer young person in the corrections system, I will keep doing what I’m doing.

Luckily, it means so much more than that.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #384 (Wednesday, November 23, 2016). This story appeared on page E2.

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