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Bringing justice to schools

School District 43 has partnered with a local restorative justice organization to resolve conflicts in high schools and middle schools to promote empathy and create safer schools.

School District 43 has partnered with a local restorative justice organization to resolve conflicts in high schools and middle schools to promote empathy and create safer schools.

The district has set aside $10,000 in Community Link funding for the services of trained facilitators from Communities Embracing Restorative Action (CERA) who will work with students and resolve difficulties before conflicts get out of hand.

District spokesperson Marna Macmillan said Centennial has used CERA facilitators to resolve some of the school's more difficult conflicts and the district wanted to give other schools the same opportunity.

"It's the idea that a lot of things happen inside and outside of schools, especially with technology, that go deep and run deep and can impact in a variety of ways," said Macmillan, who is the social responsibility co-ordinator for SD43. She said restorative justice works better than suspensions and other punishments for getting to the deeper issues.

CERA has been using restorative justice for years with first-time young offenders referred by Coquitlam RCMP and Port Moody police. In restorative justice, youths who caused harm meet with the harmed party to hear what effect their actions have caused and work out a plan of action. The program has been working in the Tri-Cities for years with funding from municipalities, provincial grants and private donations, diverting cases from the court system and resolving issues with a 96% success rate.

CERA has also been teaching students how to use restorative justice principals at school in a program called Empowering Youth but some problems are too big for youth peer mediators to resolve.

When conflicts arise on the weekend or on a social media site, it's left to schools to deal with them and Centennial principal Rob Zambrano said he asked CERA's facilitators to help with some of the more difficult cases. With CERA facilitators in the school, conflicts could be dealt with before they got out of hand, Zambrano said.

"It could, in fact, be a dangerous situation we were able to mitigate and mediate before they occurred," he said.

CERA has helped with about 10 conflicts in the last two years, Zambrano said, and one warring duo even ended up being friends.

"The reality is it's very respectful and it's a very empowering process for youth and their families," he said.

Now, the school is looking at ways of incorporating restorative justice throughout the school by training teachers and incorporating restorative justice principles into the curriculum.

"We want to use it in a more pro-active sense," Zambrano said.

CERA executive director Gurinder Mann said facilitators start by getting agreement from both sides to work out their difficulties, then they meet to talk about their issues in a respectful way.

"It doesn't focus on punishment and short-term deterrence," he said. "It's more on holding students accountable, promoting understanding and reconciliation between parties."

Initially seen as a way to resolve conflicts between students, Mann said restorative justice could also be used in case of minor theft and vandalism.

Still, it's not a cure-all for every school problem, he said. Drugs and alcohol issues, for example, still need to be dealt with through specific school programs.

While it's just one tool among many, Mann said restorative justice has the potential of creating a more supportive school environment. "We're very optimistic that this is gong to be definitely promoting safer schools. It's promoting a more peaceful environment and we're very happy to do this in partnership with the school district."