Krystal Fermin, a School of Social Work student and intern at Calcutt Middle School, confers with her supervisor Lucely Rodriguez
"Restorative justice" is not new. It originated in New Zealand among the Maori tribe and became widespread in the United States in the1970s. Restorative justice is a method of dealing with offenders, urging them to accept responsibility for their offenses by meeting their victims and making amends to them and/or to the community.
Rhode Island College Assistant Professor of Social Work Karen Oliveira has trained her Central Falls student interns for the past six years in trauma-informed care and restorative justice techniques. The city has a large population of Hispanics and the lowest income in Rhode Island, according to the last census in 2016.
Oliveira explains that restorative justice works hand-in-hand with trauma-informed care. "In order for restorative justice to be effective, we need to understand the effects of trauma on the brain and how it can cause an individual to engage in behavior that is harmful to themselves or the community," she says.
In 2008 Central Falls School District began implementing restorative justice as a way to minimize suspensions and expulsions.
There are many issues in a student's life that can lead to behavioral issues in school, says Oliveira. For instance, she recalls a Central Falls student who had thrown her whole tray of lunch at one of her peers who had been teasing her. "The young girl tearfully admitted doing it," Oliveira says. "She was going through a personal situation at home and the other student's behavior triggered her."
"Teaching students coping skills, such as identifying when they are being triggered, can help them recognize their physiological responses to stress and learn when to get up to take a walk or walk away from the situation," says Oliveira.
Krystal Fermin, a social work major and intern at Calcutt Middle School in Central Falls, works 16 hours a week in the school's social work office, providing intervention when a teacher sends a student out of the classroom because they're getting into trouble.
"Our job is to try to resolve the issue before it gets to the point of suspending the student," Fermin says.
"At the beginning of my intern year, a student was coming to school late every day," says Fermin. "In my discussion with him, I found out that he was the sole caretaker of his grandpa's brother. He would stay up all night with this man, feeding him, cleaning him and tending to his needs."
There are burdens a student may be carrying that others aren't aware of, says Fermin. She believes that it is crucial that cities like Central Falls and Providence have more teachers who understand these students' culture.
Fermin is a native of the Bronx, New York, whose parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic. She says, "Growing up in the Bronx and then Providence, I didn't have a teacher that looked like me, that I could relate to, talk to, and who would understand me. As a matter of fact, I became defiant because of that."
As a social work intern, Fermin also teaches the students healthy communication and restorative justice skills when conflicts arise. She emphasizes using "I" statements rather than "you" statements, and she encourages these students to talk about their trauma and to express how they feel or felt in a crisis.
"By acknowledging their feelings, students feel validated," she says. "It gives them a sense of hope that they are being taken seriously and that someone is taking the time to actually listen and care."
Fermin believes that restorative justice and trauma-informed care benefit all involved in a student's development. She noted that many of Calcutt Middle School's teachers and staff have said that suspension rates have declined since the implementation of restorative justice in the school.
And there are benefits for practitioners as well. "Research indicates that teachers' retention increases when new teachers have training in trauma-informed care," says Oliveira.
She adds, "Becoming a trauma-informed institution is not a trend; it is a paradigm shift that can support children in a caring and compassionate way, which increases the likelihood of successful school systems."