Restorative Practices are based on a set of values.  These values provide a basis for responding to incidents in a way that meets the needs of individual students, but is centred around a core set of values and beliefs:

  • Mutual respect
  • Skill development
  • Capacity to change
  • Problems can be resolved when given time, support and a chance to discuss
  • Everyone has the opportunity to problem solve and share their feelings, needs and views in a supportive environment
  • Respectful relationships – building and maintaining
  • Creation of a safe, inclusive culture of caring

Restorative Practice is an effective way to implement progressive discipline.  When an administrator becomes aware that a student has been harmed, an investigation takes place and appropriate consequences are given.  In certain situations, it becomes apparent restorative practice is the best way to meet the needs of students, staff and parents.  Restorative Justice seeks to be socially and emotionally intelligent justice.

Since 1974, Restorative Justice has been practiced widely in the Waterloo Region.  This method of resolving conflict comes from the Aboriginal people of Australia and North America, the Maori of New Zealand, the peoples of Japan and Africa.  It is also the prevalent model of conflict resolution used in our local Mennonite community.

The first formal Restorative Justice Circle was held in one of our high schools in June 1999 as the result of an incident that occurred several months earlier, but would not settle down.  Since that time, hundreds of circles have taken place in our schools.  Training in circle facilitation was made possible from 2005 to 2008 through a grant received from the Ministry of Attorney General for Ontario.  This grant was written from the perspective of  using Restorative Practices/Restorative Justice to resolve issues of bullying in our schools, however its application has been more widespread.

With regards to school violence, safe schools and codes of conduct, the dialogue often centres around being tough on youth.  The word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina, which means learning.  Discipline, however has evolved to mean something far removed from learning.  It has become punishment.  When we remove  a student from class to the hallway, office, have them serve time outs, detentions, suspensions and finally expulsion, we remove them from the act and the resulting harm they have caused.  We deny them the opportunity to learn those vital skills necessary to help them be capable of developing healthy relationships with family, friends, peers and community.  We also deny victims in these incidents to have their voices heard, to heal and to see improvement in their situation.

Education Theory:  Models of Justice

Retributive Model Restorative Model
Violent act violates policy/statute/code of conduct Violent act violates people/relationships/school community
Focus on offence Focus on obligation of offender to make amends
Punishment decided externally Plan for reparation of harm decided by those affected by the incident
Offender defined by deficits Offender is defined by capacity to make reparation to the victim(s)
Focus on offender and incident Focus on victim and reconciliation of all parties
Focus on removal of offender from class/school Focus on reintegration of offender with necessary supports

These approaches build character – in particular empathy, compassion, honesty, respect, humility and courage and put everyone on the path to forgiveness.

In the Waterloo Region, Restorative Justice is used from the “cradle to the grave”.  With its use in our schools, simple Restorative language is used from JK right through to Waterloo’s Restorative Justice based Elder Abuse Program.  Classroom meetings are an effective restorative practice as they give youth voice to discuss issues and behaviours that are affecting the entire group.   Formal circles have been used as early as Grade 2  in our Board, right up to Grade 11 and to mend staff disagreements.  It has been used in lieu of suspension, as part of the re-entry process from suspension or expulsion and has been used during the 20-day pending period to reverse the decision to move towards full expulsion.    Besides its use in bullying incidents (physical, verbal, social, cyber), circles have been used to resolve harm coming from incidents of threats, arson, vandalism, assault, theft, drug trafficking, possession of weapons and truancy.

Restorative Justice is not about “us” and “them”.  It is about bringing the people harmed, the person(s) who caused the harm and the community together to find solutions that are acceptable to everyone.  The entire goal of Restorative Justice is to educate youth about the impact of their actions on others, to hold them accountable for their actions in a constructive and meaningful way and provide an opportunity for them to make amends.

“Without forgiveness, life is governed by … an endless cycle of resentment and retaliation.”
Roberto Assagioli

Most of our schools have a staff member who is trained in circle facilitation, but central support is also available.

What have circle participants said about their Restorative Justice experiences?

The circle was used because neither the victim and family nor the aggressors and families wanted anyone to be expelled and this was an expellable offence.  The two boys were on 20 day pending when the process took place.  I was convinced by the end they would not be a safety issue in the school, so they were readmitted on a careful re-entry strategy.  The three boys had been the best of friends.  This was a situation that just got carried away.

Principal’s comments following circle.

I felt everyone’s honesty and integrity aided in the full story being put forth.  Everyone involved took ownership in the part they played in the events leading up to the knife incident…It enabled “us” as a community to come together and be responsible for whichever part we each had in this incident.

Parent of Gr 8 student who brought a knife to school.

I don’t understand why, but the strangest thing has happened!  We have become really good friends out of this.  We hang  together at school and outside of school – I’ve even been to (victim)’s cottage twice. It’s all good!

Bully reporting on what has happened in the month since the circle took place.

I came tonight, really angry and I didn’t believe this would work.  Now, I feel satisfied and hopeful.  My ward had been bullied at his previous school and staff made it worse by confronting the bully.  This has been a very different process and I appreciate the chance to work with the parents of the other boys to get this fixed.”

Guardian of bullied Gr. 5 student.  Five months later the guardian reported his ward is having the best school year of his life, has made lots of new friends and loves his new school.

We have had circles with participation of police officers, community members, local agency representatives, parents, students, staff and parents included.  Circles have ranged from small issues of rumour and gossip spreading, to disrespectful and defiant behaviour towards staff members and occasional teachers, to theft within the school, to issues of bullying and exclusion of students, to offences down at the local plaza where we invited storeowners and managers in to meet with the students who were stealing from the stores….The circle is a very powerful process where everyone walks away from it empowered to do better next time and offer solutions to avoid future occurrences.

Vice Principal reflecting on use of RJ.

(my daughter)’s life has been so unhappy for the past thirteen months.  It has been so upsetting for me, as her mother, to stand watching her trying so desperately to deal with the stress of this situation and being unable to make it go away.  Tonight has been amazing and I am so hopeful that we can all work together to help the girls be successful.

Mother of Grade 2 student following circle.

I think there has been a lot of blame being assigned and not enough work going into understanding that these are children who just don’t have the skills to sort this out without our help. Tonight we are all pulling together to get this fixed.

Mother, following circle.

I was dreading the circle.  I thought there would be a lot of drama, but there wasn’t.  I still can’t believe how helpful it was!  It cleared up a lot of issues.  People weren’t pointing their fingers at me and what I had done.  Instead, they were looking at other things that were wrong and needed fixing.

Gr 10 student

The bullying of special needs children cannot be tolerated.  As a society, we need to wrap our arms around these kids instead of singling them out as not being of a kind like us, therefore it is OK to hurt them.  That is a lesson we, as educators, need to enforce gently from Kindergarten.  Tonight made an major impact with this group of boys, but I need to start building this dam further upstream.


(my son) has been very quiet about what was happening at school.  I was horrified and felt physically sick when he spoke tonight about what the last month of his life has been like…..I was really relieved at the outcome and the way the boys stepped up to make things right.

Mother, Grade 7 victim of bullying.

I’m glad the fight happened and we got caught because we talked about it and it fixed a lot of other things that were happening. A fight is never a good thing…but this time it was.

Bystander, following circle

I felt sick when I got the call from the school that my son had set a fire behind a portable.  It could have gone so horribly wrong. Through the circle process, my son has learned the danger in utilizing community resources for stupid things from the Platoon Chief at the fire hall. My son just didn’t think about the consequences of his actions, but he has learned lots from this incident. I doubt he will light another fire.

Mother of Grade 4 student

I felt really pressured by my friends to bring some of my mother’s prescription medication to school.  I felt like I wouldn’t belong in any group if I didn’t do what they asked. When I heard kids got really sick and had to go to hospital, I was afraid they had taken some of the pills I brought in. I wasn’t the only one who supplied meds that one day, but I was partly responsible for what happened. I’m glad I had an opportunity to hear what everyone had to say and to apologize for my part in the problem. I won’t be doing that again – ever – no matter how much I am pressured.

Gr. 9 student following circle

My son made a big mistake taking his birthday gift (pocket knife) to school and made an even bigger mistake slashing the curtains in the auditorium. However, he has take responsibility for what he did, he’s said he’s sorry and he will be working for the next 8 1/2 months to reimburse the school for the damage he did. I think the circle helped his friends to understand that when they laughed at what he was doing, they were encouraging him and that’s a lesson they all needed to understand.

Mother, Gr. 10 student following circle