Seeking solutions beyond the punitive at Brattleboro Union High School

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BRATTLEBORO >> Not everyone knows about Restorative Justice Week.

But in Brattleboro, there are people who are well aware of the Nov. 15 to 22 celebration with "Inspiring Innovation" as its theme.

Take Brattleboro Union High School for instance, where a formal restorative justice program has been in place for approximately 11 years.

"That's when I came to this school, to do that," said Mike Szostak, program director, formerly employed in corporate America. "We are the longest running restorative justice program in Vermont in terms of high schools and one of the longest running ones in the nation."

Last year, 192 cases came across his desk. Referrals come from administration, teachers or kids and while rare, sometimes police.

BUHS has its own school resource officer who is with the Windham County Sheriffs Department and works closely with Szostak. The first person to fill the position was Brattleboro Police Det. Lt. Michael Carrier.

Szostak said the cases always involve some kind of conflict. Whether it be between two students or a student and a teacher, the incidents span from vandalism to weapons to bullying.

"Anything short of murder, we handle it," said Szostak. "We do this because statistically there have been all kinds of studies done throughout the whole country and in Vermont itself that say a kid who is suspended out of school is twice as likely to end up dropping out of school, even once suspended out of school. And then it's pretty well known that a kid who drops out of school has a much tougher time in life and a lot of bad things happen along the way."

One of the main goals of the program is to keep kids in school. In-school and out-of-school suspension as punishments take students out of the classroom and once that happens, Szostak said, they get behind in their assignments and things deteriorate from there. It's a downward spiral, he said.

If a student is a threat to themselves or another student then suspension may be needed. But Szostak looks for ways to teach rather than punish.

"We're trying to repair whatever relationship has been damaged and still hold the kid accountable," he said. "But repair the relationship so the kid can be successful."

Seeing the program itself as successful, Szostak noted support from the school's social studies department. Szostak is allowed to teach restorative justice during their classes. There, he recruits students to sit on panels.

Ideally, Szostak would prefer students handle the cases. They sit in circles to resolve issues confidentially.

Sheldon Burnell, BUHS senior, took to it "real easy," said Szostak.

"You're giving the people who are involved another option. It's just an alternative way of going about it instead of taking it to administration and they're told what they're doing wrong and then they're given a punishment," Burnell said. "With this, it gives them a chance to think about what was wrong and why it was wrong but also what they could do in the future to make it so that they don't do the same thing again."

Having sat on panels for two incidents so far, Burnell said he feels he gives students a chance to reflect on their actions by letting them talk it out. One student was involved in bullying while another brought a knife to school.

"We're all in this together," he said. "I'm not supposed to personally know them but they're peers. Everyone has incidents and stuff that they go through. It's just good to be someone who gives them an opportunity that's a little less harmful than a suspension or something like that."

Burnell is instructed to ask open-ended questions rather than accusatory ones. He said he has witnessed students making realizations about their conflict; they are understanding how their actions affect another person. This approach, he said, can also avoid the possibility of making the person feel intimidated by administrators.

The restorative justice model could be something the rest of the world adopts, Burnell told the Reformer, pointing to the prison system's recidivism rates which are anywhere from 60 to 80 percent.

"It's clearly not working," he said.

Last time Szostak checked, the price to keep a person imprisoned for a year was at a national average of $45,000.

"We have right now 7.2 million people in our country either in prison or somewhere under the control of the Department of Corrections," Szostak said. "That's more than any other country in the whole world by far. We just believe in punishment."

The racial divide is clear with 63 percent of those imprisoned being African American or Latino, according to Szostak.

Critics of Szostak and the restorative justice model claim they are too soft on crime and offenders are not being held accountable. Szostak says this is not true and that it is much more difficult for students to sit down in a circle and handle the situation face to face.

Benefits of easing up on the harshness of penalties can be seen in Vermont. This year, a law was signed to make more residents eligible to have criminal convictions removed from their records by a judge and a pilot "Driver Restoration Day" saw hundreds of people get their licenses reinstated. In 2013, criminal penalties were eliminated for the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

On Monday, Nov. 16, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced improvements in the state prison situation, which he believes has to do with his "War on Recidivism." When coming into office in January 2011, inmate population was at 2,103 and the Council on State Government expected that number would reach 2,619 by November 2015.

"Today, Vermont has 1,734 inmates, 885 less than projected. It costs roughly $62,000 per year for each in-state inmate," a press release stated. "Had the CSG projection proved correct, Vermont would have been looking at additional costs of tens of millions of dollars each year. The number of prisoners housed out of state has declined as well, falling 52 percent from 562 in 2011 to 271 today."

Also noted was the decline on the state's corrections budget's rate of growth. Between fiscal years 2006 and 2011, that budget grew by approximately 30 percent or 6 percent each year. Between fiscal years 2011 and 2016, the growth was slowed to approximately 9 percent or less than 2 percent annually.

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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