The Bible is filled with stories of transgressions and a Creator who longs to give opportunities to restore what has gone wrong. As such, I believe that God has called me into my corner of the world to help restore the brokenness that we encounter daily in the lives of staff, students, and parents at Fraser Valley Christian High School.
I began the journey with restorative practices about twelve years ago when Ed Boelens, assistant principal at the time, and Kathy VanAndel, counsellor, shared the principles of real justice in a workshop with our staff at Fraser Valley Christian High School (now known as Surrey Christian School). They followed up the workshop with a role-play that allowed us to walk through the process of a formal restorative practices conference.
A couple of years later, theory turned into reality when I had an opportunity to participate in a formal conference with real students, real parents, real administrators, and real issues. In my first year as an assistant principal at Fraser Valley Christian High, I was thrown into the fire with a drug incident that would forever not only change the lives of the students involved, but also my life. According to school policy, one of the students should have been expelled on the spot, and the other student should have received a lengthy fifteen-day suspension. Initial interviews with the students involved clearly indicated their brokenness and deep desire to be restored to the school. As administrators, we wrestled with the tension of following our handbook to the letter, which meant expulsion, and our convictions about what it means to live in community and to allow a path to restoration.
For this incident, we felt a strong urge to walk through the restorative practice formal conference. The conference involved fourteen people, including facilitators, who had in some way been affected by the incident. Participants included the offenders, offenders’ parents and friends, victims and their supporters, a student council representative, a board member, as well as school administrators. The process followed a script similar to the following, which is provided by the International Institute for Restorative Practices.
To the Offender
- What happened?
- What were you thinking about at the time?
- What have you thought about since?
- Who has been affected by what you have done? in what way?
- What do you think you need to do make things right?
To the Victims
- What did you think when you realized what had happened?
- What affect has this incident had on you and others?
- What has been the hardest thing for you?
- What do you think needs to happen to make things right?
Each person at the conference had an opportunity to respond to what had happened and each person also had an opportunity to indicate what s/he felt needed to happen to make things right again. If at any point during the conference, the participants were feeling that the process was not working, they were given the permission to leave the conference, at which point the school administrators would revert back to the consequences laid out in the handbook. In other words, the process placed a heavy emphasis on a communal agreement. The communal wisdom of this group of people allowed these offenders a way back into our school community and also allowed the healing to begin for the victims. The evening closed with an opportunity to share some food and refreshments, a form of breaking bread together.
The power of this process is seen when offenders are given an opportunity to hear how their actions have affected other people. Hearing the stories of brokenness and heartache can affect individuals and forever change the course of their lives. At times, those who are skeptical of restorative practices are concerned that offenders will not have stern enough consequences. In my experience with this incident as well as others, I have seen the opposite. Offenders do have consequences. The difference is that the offender, victim, and others have been included in creating a consequence. The result is often a heart-and-head transformation that is rarely seen when consequences are handed out by administrators. The fruit of this particular incident was watching a student do a 180-degree turn in the direction of his life.
Over the last ten years, we have continued to the best of our abilities to use the principles of real justice and restorative practices. I have gained much insight from the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP), and have sometimes questioned whether even now I truly operate on the principles of restorative practices. In my everyday interactions with offenders, victims, and parents, I see myself using the language, questions, and principles of restorative practices but have found it difficult to carve out the time needed to work through the framework of formal conferences. I have also wondered what the principles of restorative practices mean for our entire school. What do they mean for each of our teachers? How do these practices move beyond my office and into classrooms? And further, how do these practices proactively become a way of life and not just a way to respond to issues?
With these questions, I began my journey to Bethlehem. I realized that to get any sense of how these practices are lived out, I should go to the home of the IIRP in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This past March, I participated in a four-day training session that included a two-day immersion at Buxmont Academy as well as a two-day training session on an “Introduction to Restorative Practices” and “How To Use Circles Effectively.”
I now have a better understanding of how these practices could be lived out on a day-to-day basis. I was released from a false sense of guilt that I was “just not doing enough.” The four days affirmed many of the practices at our school, but have also given me many other ideas on how to use restorative practices in the classroom. Further, I realized that there is no “cookie-cutter” formula using restorative practices. Each school or organization needs to wrestle with how to tailor these practices within their own school context. I have been freed to continue to take baby steps in moving our school forward with the use of restorative practices.
Not only were these four days transformative for me professionally, but also personally. I learned how restorative practices can permeate my communication within my own family. Not only has the Bethlehem of old marked a new beginning for all of us, but so has my own journey to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. For this experience at the IIRP, I will be forever grateful.
Ultimately, our desire to use restorative practices at Surrey Christian School is a direct response to our Creator’s invitation to participate in the restoration of all of life. May this blessing for restoration affect our everyday interactions in the days to come.
Blessing for Restoration
May the mistakes of my past make the reality of my brokenness ever real.
May the reality of my brokenness allow me to see my need for healing.
May my need for healing lead me to the waterfall of forgiveness.
May the waterfall of forgiveness splash me with an ever-conscious offering of mercy not only for myself, but also for others.
May the Lord Christ be in my brokenness, forgiveness, healing, and mercy.
And finally, may my encounter with brokenness, forgiveness, and mercy affect each and every encounter from here on in. Amen.