Bullying Prevention and the Restorative Approach ©Chuck Saufler 2009

In the late 1990's many states redoubled their bullying prevention efforts as a response to public concerns for "safe schools" in the wake of the Columbine tragedy. In 1997 the Maine Department of Education funded a three-year project called the Maine Project Against Bullying whose purpose was to help schools address bullying prevention and intervention. The project adopted the Blueprint of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, with a few modifications, as a starting point for this work. The Maine Bullying Prevention Education Program was and is a whole school approach that requires a comprehensive, coordinated and sustained effort involving all stakeholders in a school community to achieve the desired outcomes stated in the program research. Ultimately it is a program about improving school climate and culture by targeting for change, behavioral norms and values of the school culture. Since 2000 the "Maine Model" has continued to evolve and incorporate practices from current research in behavior, neurology, social sciences and school climate.

In Maine we have long recognized that:

As the Maine Model of bullying prevention has evolved, we are moving into the next stage of programmatic evolution by incorporating a restorative approach as the overarching principle that guides all aspects of school culture and climate improvement, including bullying prevention. The restorative approach is a philosophy or guiding principle (not a program or specific activity) that sees relationships as central to learning, growth and a healthy school climate for students and adults.

The overall focus of the restorative approach is on building, maintaining, and when necessary, restoring relationships. About 80% of the restorative approach is proactive relationship building through a continuum of informal to formal practices. Informal practices include affective messages that communicate people's feelings as well as affective questions to help people reflect on their own behavior and how it has impacted others. We call this restorative dialogue. These informal practices when widely used by adults at school have a cumulative impact because they become part of everyday life. Community circles, restorative circles and community resolution conferences are more formal methods of building community, solving problems, and dealing with misbehavior. The restorative approach includes practices that challenge some teachers' and administrators' deeply held beliefs about traditional discipline and authority. This challenging of beliefs is where cultural change begins. Research confirms that the overall effect of these practices is a classroom and school climate with a more positive affective resonance. That is, a school that has a positive feeling tone where students and staff feel connected to the school community.

A key restorative practice is the use of community circles at school. Here the traditional bullying prevention classroom meeting intersects with the restorative practice of community circles. We can revive a sense of connection and community through implementing community circles as a regular part of school life, not just a once a week event to talk about behavior. Community builds awareness, understanding and connection between students. We can support students in exploring their personal beliefs about human rights, social justice and equality through the circle process. The structure of the process over time creates a sense of caring, belonging, inclusion and safety that encourages youth to speak their truth and hear others with differing ideas in a respectful process. We can target social issues as they arise to be examined in the circle process through civil discussion. Community circles may also offer students the opportunity to solve peer group social problems in a respectful discussion of different ideas.

Something that has been missing from the work in bullying prevention is the restoration of community after an aggressive act. The restorative approach views acts of aggression as a violation of relationships and of community norms, rather than a just a violation of school rules that requires punishment. Aggressors have traditionally been excluded from the class/school community for periods of time for their aggressive acts. During their time away from the class, they may be involved in a reflective process that helps them discover how to more appropriately meet the needs that were met through the aggressive act. Sometimes they just get a "time out" with no reflective process. Then they go back to the same environment where little or nothing has changed so that peer and adult beliefs about, and expectations of them, remain the same. The stimulus remains the same with the expectation that their behavior will change all at once from "bad" to "good."

Aggressive youth who are involved in a real process of behavioral change should have the opportunity to interact with their classmates in a structured and safe way to make their intentions to be less aggressive known. They should be able to request the support from peers and adults that they need to become a more pro-social member of their school community. Restorative circles provide a structured forum for this to take place. We can reconnect disenfranchised youth with the school through a restorative circle process. The accountability of the restorative circle process helps those affected by the behavior to be heard in a safe environment and holds accountable those responsible for violating community norms.

The goal of the work today is improving student connection and bonding to school by improving school climate and culture, while providing protection for targeted students and effective responses to peer aggression. The restorative approach focuses our attention on the quality of all relationships among all members of the school community. Without a guiding philosophy for all relationships, school culture becomes fragmented and breaks down because adults are not consistently modeling the behaviors they want and expect from the students. Restorative practices, consistently used, provide the glue that builds a safe, supportive and respectful school community.

This is the next stage in the evolution of bullying prevention work.