When Chris Gunther, New Orleans, La.'s coordinator for the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention and a Health Department lead, reached out to stakeholders throughout New Orleans, a student advocacy group called Rethinkers made clear to him and his Forum team the need to expand restorative approaches to conflict in schools.
Rethinkers was established a little while after Hurricane Katrina of 2005 to provide a way for young people returning home from time at other schools to talk about their experiences and how they could turn what they learned into action in New Orleans public schools. It currently operates in seven middle schools and a high school, conducting 5-week summer programs and student clubs to discuss topics such as school discipline, violence in the community, explorations of power and privilege, school food, school uniforms, and teacher–student and other interpersonal relationships.
"When we met with the Rethinkers," Gunther recalls, "they educated us about the importance of restorative approaches. We see a great deal of promise in restorative justice as a way to not only promote positive and safe school climates but also engage youth as partners in violence prevention."
Restorative justice programming has been around since the 1970s. According to criminologist Howard Zehr, restorative practice approaches have their roots in restorative justice, "a way of looking at criminal justice that emphasizes repairing the harm done to people and relationships rather than only punishing offenders."* This concept has taken hold in New Orleans, becoming one of the focal points of the Forum team effort.
Though Rethinkers brought the Forum team's attention to restorative approaches, the Center for Restorative Approaches (CRA) had been active in New Orleans since 2009, when it began work at Walter L. Cohen High School. CRA is an independent nonprofit.
For CRA founder Troi Bechet, using restorative approaches is "a real way to not only keep our children in school but to heal and repair the harm that happens because of these types of incidences in school."
Bechet created the center in 2008 after traveling to a school for adjudicated youth in Baltimore, Md., and observing a successful community conference with young women who were involved in a fight.
She continues: "Restorative approaches hold children accountable in a way that makes them reflect on what they could have done differently and internalize their responsibility to themselves and others."