SOUTH NEWFANE—Dan DeWalt has seen restorative community justice’s success at Leland & Gray Union Middle & High School, where he teaches fine woodworking.
Now, he wants to bring this method of conflict resolution to the rest of the West River Valley and beyond.
DeWalt created Restorative Community Justice of Southern Vermont, a nonprofit organization with a mission to introduce and provide restorative practices to the community.
“These practices focus on repairing harm and reintegrating those involved in conflict back into the community by talking about important issues, improving relationships, creating a peaceable climate, and nurturing critical awareness of each person’s valued place in their community,” according to the organization’s website, rcjsv.org.
DeWalt said it all began at Leland & Gray about six years ago, with the arrival of a new principal who was interested in restorative justice and brought someone in to train staff on its principles and practices.
Rather than correct students’ behavior using what DeWalt said is “the retribution/punishment model,” restorative justice is about reconnecting the person who committed the infraction with their community.
“I saw it was effective,” he said. “The kids had an opportunity to be listened to. They were amazed. But, they had to listen to others, too. This is so much of the problem: People aren’t listening to each other.”
DeWalt was so intrigued by those initial experiences, he participated in a series of trainings at the International Institute for Restorative Practices four years later, and brought his new skills back to Leland & Gray, where he saw it work.
At Leland & Gray, and in other schools using this model, students receive fewer disciplinary infractions, and their attendance improves, he noted.
These days, “kids are suffering more,” DeWalt said, noting that they experience struggles with opiates and failing support systems in ways previous generations rarely did.
Although at Leland & Gray, the students benefit from restorative justice programs by learning new skills, solving conflicts, and engaging in harm reduction, “after school, there’s nothing there for them,” DeWalt said.
But he doesn’t believe it has to be that way.
“I want to inculcate restorative practices in everyday life to deal with conflict,” DeWalt said.
However, he acknowledges it will require a paradigm shift.
“Right now, we have this ‘rugged individual, everyone for himself’ mentality, and it doesn’t work,” he said. “Seeing ourselves as listeners and conflict resolvers is not a common American archetype, but we should model that. There’s lots of defensiveness in our culture. Simple questions are met with blame and malice, and we’re never going to get anywhere like that.”
DeWalt isn’t alone in wanting to change the culture from a retribution/punishment system to a restorative community justice model. Across Vermont, the state departments of Education, Corrections, and Human Services have either established restorative justice models in the populations they serve or are exploring implementing them.
By using these models in the criminal justice system, “we can relieve the crush on the prison systems, and we’re reaching out to people before they’re involved” in the system, DeWalt said. “Some of the cases I’ve worked on were a hair’s-breadth from bringing in ‘the law.’”
By using restorative justice, conflict resolution is decentralized and decriminalized, DeWalt said.
“We can use our own power to deal with conflict — not the judge, the cops, or the prosecutor. We can build a culture and take care of our problems in a fashion that works for us,” he said.
So far, Restorative Community Justice has eight members and nonprofit status in Vermont and with the IRS. The group is working on fundraising so it can hire a full-time outreach worker, who will let the community know the organization “can offer conflict resolution ... at no charge,” DeWalt said.
DeWalt estimates the nonprofit needs $65,000 to get started, and the group has $5,500 pledged.
“We’re building our ranks. There are people waiting to get trained,” he said, noting local trainings should start in January or February.
The group will also offer restorative justice conflict resolution training to community members for free — or better.
“We want to offer stipends to get people trained, and they can use the stipend to cover gas, child-care costs, etc.,” DeWalt said.
Restorative Community Justice will also offer training in mediation and support for individuals recovering from physical trauma.
Currently, the group serves Townshend, Jamaica, and Newfane, and partners with Leland & Gray.
DeWalt appeared at a recent Newfane Selectboard meeting to ask Town Meeting for $1,000.
“The Selectboard was supportive,” DeWalt said.
The organization’s Board is considering asking other service towns for Town Meeting funding. DeWalt said he chose Newfane first “because I live there and people know what I do.”
“We’ve lost touch with our own power,” DeWalt said. “This [presidential] election is a wake-up call. We need to look to our neighbors if we want to have a peaceful coexistence on this planet with grace. Restorative justice is a real movement, and the community is growing at a pretty good pace. There’s no reason it can’t grow on a municipal level at the same pace. What can be better than solving our own problems?”