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Metro Seniors Step In As "Justice Restorers"

by MAYA MCFADDEN | Mar 12, 2024 12:54 pm


When students make mistakes at Metropolitan Business Academy, student leaders step in to help their peers take accountability, repair the harm caused, and accept supports to keep it from happening again. 


That ​“restorative practice” approach was on full display during a Metro Youth Justice Panel (MYJP) class that met in a second-floor classroom Friday. 


The MYJP senior capstone class is taught by Metro teachers Julia Miller and Steve Staysniak. The duo introduced the course last school year to address mistakes made by students as an alternative to disciplinary measures like suspension. 


Recent studies have found that students suspended from school are often put at higher risk of being involved in trouble as they get older. 


About 25 seniors make up the class. They said they agree that isolation is not the answer to student mistakes. The MYJP students have put in the work this school year to help their peers to repair harm they caused by hosting hearings for four incidents. 


On Friday the class prepared for their fifth and sixth hearings set to happen in the coming weeks. (To protect participants’ confidentiality, the teachers did not permit any specifics to be disclosed about cases or types of offenses being dealt with.)



The senior law students take on the roles of a case facilitator (judge), clerk, student advocates (lawyers), and student jury in the hearings. Before preparing for upcoming hearings Friday, the class started by organizing a restorative circle. 


The circles allow students to learn more about each other with thematic questions selected by a new student each class. Friday’s circle theme was summer thanks to senior Peyton, who asked her classmates: ​“What are you looking forward to this summer?” And to ​“share a favorite summer memory.”


The cases the MYJP class take on are assigned through administrative referral for ​“low demeanor” student mistakes. Once referred the student who made the mistake has the choice to opt in to the MYJP process or not.

If they do, the student and any community members involved fill out intake forms for the class to get an idea of the mistake and then assign hearing teams. 


Staysniak added that the course is aimed at providing ​“authentic and meaningful experiential learning to the students who take it. While the role the class plays in addressing some (in reality, a very small number when considering the school as a whole) of the mistakes made by students at Metro, the main focus of the class is to give the students who take it a deep understanding of how ideas of restorative and transformative justice can look in the real world.”


During hearings, student advocates act as lawyers for the student who made the mistake and hold a pre-hearing circle with the student to get an understanding of why the mistake was made. 


The facilitator acts as the ​“judge” by leading the hearing alongside a clerk who administers a confidentiality oath for all involved in each case. 


Student and community advocates present the details of the mistake to a student jury, indicating that the student has taken accountability for the mistake, allowing for them to come up with a restorative contract full of recommendations for the student to repair harm and ensure the mistake is not repeated. 


Staysniak added that the focus of the class is not to stop all student mistakes from occurring at Metro, ​“or even to supplant the need for supportive, developmentally appropriate consequences for student behaviors that violate the norms and procedures laid out in our Student Handbook and NHPS Code of Conduct” but rather is to train Metro students to be the ambassadors of restorative practices on behalf of the school community.


In the library Friday seniors Drez Garcia, Katherine Portillo, and Daisy Perez Ruiz worked on crafting thoughtful questions as student and community advocates that would help them best to learn about the student’s case. One question noted down asked about the student’s middle school experiences.


The class’s first case was just before the December winter break. All students in the class went through a training that lasted until November to prepare them for the school year’s cases. 


This school year all of the cases dealt with by the MYJP students were involving freshmen students. 


“The ninth grade class is struggling,” Miller said. ​“They were in middle school during the pandemic.” 


The students and class facilitators Miller and Staysniak recognized almost immediately this year that the missing part of the MYJP puzzle was mentorship. In all cases so far one of many outcomes have resulted in the MYJP seniors pairing with freshmen involved in cases to offer them guidance and support after the hearings and throughout the school year. Students designated as guides for cases take on the responsibility of mentoring the student who made a mistake.



Myr’akle Burgess said her work as a guide earlier this year has helped her to establish a brother-sister like relationship with a freshmen who made a mistake months ago. 


Burgess continues to check in with her mentee on a weekly basis to offer them support to avoid making any further mistake. 


During weekly check-ins, Burgess pulls her student from class for a brief walk in hallways to check in on their mental, physical, and academic needs. She learned about her mentee that they struggled with communicating effectively with adults and so she has been helping them to get better at approaching teachers and other adults.

“We all need a little push in life,” Burgess said. ​“I’ve been in his shoes before.” 


During Friday’s class Burgess prepared for her role as a student advocate. She was tasked with interviewing the student involved in the most recent case. She wrote down her questions Friday before heading into the pre-hearing circle.


She headed into the circle reminding herself that ​“it’s not an investigation; it’s a conversation.”


Her three goals were to not intimidate the student, get a full picture of the student’s perspective, and to serve as a positive role model for MYJP to encourage the students to join their senior year.


During Friday’s class the students had hopes to have a follow-up interview with the student involved in one upcoming case. They learned that the student was absent Friday.


“So do you guys think we can still have the hearing Tuesday?” Staysniak asked the student advocate group. 

The five students said no because they did not have enough information to properly represent the students case. 

The student agreed that the hearing would have to be rescheduled. 


On Monday a Hill Regional Career Highschool student visited the MYJP class to learn more about their work with hopes to possibly introduce something similar as a club at the Hill high school. 


Miller and Staysniak agreed that the student-led capstone has been transformative for the high school. 

“This class represents how we can develop school programming that is responsive to the changing needs of kids,” Staysniak said. 


He added that the co-teaching model used in MYJP is needed more often, and as a veteran educator himself, it helps to retain him and keep him fresh as a teacher.

 

Miller agreed that the co-teaching has made the course more sustainable especially because ​“Teachers often work in silos.” 


But with MYJP Miller and Staysniak have a ​“built-in thought partner”


They concluded that they ​“see this as only the beginning of a course that might grow into something with prerequisites that include 10th and 11th graders, and the course itself will continue to change to meet the needs of our school community and most importantly, the needs of the seniors who enroll in the class.”





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