...The focus, said Mary Ann Panarelli, director of intervention and prevention services for Fairfax County Public Schools, “is on harm vs. rule breaking. Rather than talking about ‘what rule did you break?’ – we look at who was harmed and what they need to make things right for them.”

By asking a set of restorative questions, the participants (offender(s), victim(s), facilitator, and sometimes parents) sit in a circle and examine what happened during the time the harm occurred – and the offenders in particular talk about what they were thinking, then.

“We try to look at little deeper into why the behaviors are happening,” she said, “and how the offenders harm themselves and their family with any kind of wrongdoing.”

...Three years ago, Fairfax County Public Schools conducted a pilot program in partnership with the Northern Virginia Mediation Services. The next year they developed a training plan for building a culture of restorative justice across the school system. These past two years have concentrated on middle and high schools, because that’s where the largest level of students are suspended and facing expulsion.

In addition to sharing information on the overall program, about 15 schools have allowed staff members to be trained as facilitators with some “lower level” type situations, such as students being disrespectful to each other or to a teacher. “We’re keeping a lot more information on what the schools are doing with this process,” said Panarelli, “and that’s helping us understand how it’s working.”

One benefit administrators have noted is long-term behavior change. With the traditional method, for example, merely suspending a student who was fighting never gets to the core of the conflict.

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