Montgomery County Public Schools is in the middle of formally assessing the success of its social justice-inspired approach to conflict resolution in cases of school bullying, violence and hate bias using state-provided metrics.
Data indicates that MCPS efforts to adopt a restorative justice model may not have been effective, while students and parents question the success of its approach to conflict resolution.
The school district describes restorative justice as “an approach to building community, self-care, and conflict resolution.” The approach was first adopted in 2019 after the state passed regulations requiring schools to employ more trauma-informed practices. Within this model, principals can request a member of the central office restorative justice team to be deployed to schools as incidents arise.
A local Parent-Teacher-Student Association member described the model as too broad and vague to be effective.
“I know of several incidents at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School where the experience was negative for students,” Lyric Winik said. “I think there are helpful parts of the model, but I wish [MCPS] decided to pilot it at a select number of schools and focused on a few specific types of situations instead of throwing everything countywide into the restorative justice blender.”
She said the model is currently used to address every kind of conflict that may erupt within schools, even though some situations may not be conducive to such an approach.
“The restorative justice model often takes the position that there’s fault on both sides,” she said. “It tends to put victims and victimizers in the same space, which is not necessarily conducive to a real resolution.”
Winik specifically mentioned antisemitic incidents, hate bias incidents and incidents involving student-teacher conflict as situations where such an approach might not be effective.
While school specialists say most interactions between the restorative justice team and students are positive, some students have expressed concern about the team’s approach to conflict resolution.
The ongoing assessment uses metrics developed by the Maryland State Department of Education that identify whether schools’ approach to restorative justice are “reactive, early, intermediate or mature.” The evaluation will require all 210 public schools in the county to report data back to MCPS using the state rubric before the end of March, according to a presentation given to the school board in February.
At the time of the presentation, 87 of the 210 MCPS schools had submitted data for the evaluation. Of those, only 3.4% were found to have a mature approach to restorative justice, meaning they have “proactive measures in place with significant effectiveness.”
MCPS data shows that only 7% of over 1,100 school visits from the restorative justice team have involved assisting with conflict resolution in specific incidents. Most of the team’s work consists of providing professional development and training opportunities to school staff, said Shauna-Kay Jorandby, MCPS director of student engagement, behavioral health and academics.
“We’re not a part of incident investigations or the doling out of consequences,” Jorandby said. “We’re there to help people mend relationships to be able to move forward.”
This process can include one-on-one therapeutic sessions with students, conflict resolution discussions called “circles,” and the identification of community service opportunities and other strategies to help students mend relationships when harm has been caused.
The individuals who lead circle discussions and respond to incidents are called restorative justice specialists. Last year MCPS employed three of these specialists, Jorandby said. That number tripled this year, with nine specialists serving the school district from a range of counseling-related backgrounds. Two of the specialists have specific experience working in special education.
“We run a tight, tight schedule, and it’s never enough,” Jorandby said.
Bethlehem Beru is a restorative justice specialist who previously served as an MCPS middle school resource counselor. She’s spent a total of nine years working in the school district.
“For a lot of communities, restorative justice is still new and growing in these spaces,” she said. “I spent a lot of time at schools working with students one-on-one, checking in with teachers, providing professional development on a rolling basis,” she said. “What’s great is that we get to work with all members of the school community.”
Beru described conflict resolution as the most difficult part of her job but only a small piece of her day-to-day work activities.
Freshman Rachel Barold participated in a conflict resolution circle at Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School after two students on her speech and debate team were reported to have used antisemitic language on a school trip, including making threats against Barold and other Jewish students on the team.
Barold told MoCo360 she had serious concerns about the way the resulting circle discussions were handled by Beru and social work supervisor Stephanie Hord-Wallace.
For example, she said Beru and Hord-Wallace allowed the two students who made the harmful remarks to recount their version of the incident, but other student witnesses on the debate team were not given the opportunity to correct inaccuracies in the narrative.
Barold remembered a specific set of questions written on the whiteboard by Beru and Hord-Wallace. “We were not allowed to say anything else that didn’t relate directly to those questions,” she said.
A personal reflection sheet available as a restorative justice resource on the MCPS website first asks the student who exhibited the challenging behavior to describe what happened. A similar reflection sheet designed for the harmed student to complete instead poses the question, “What did you think when you realized what happened?”
When interviewed by MoCo360, Beru and Hord-Wallace did not specifically address Barold’s concerns about the circle discussions at Walt Whitman.
Jorandby said restorative justice specialists are specifically trained in trauma-informed strategies to conflict resolution, and that all related resources are crafted using the same lens. Speaking specifically to Barold’s assertions, Jorandby said:
“If anybody was harmed by this process or if we’ve created new harm without intent, for that I want to say on behalf of my team, we’re so sorry. Our intention remains coming in as a support.”
MCPS spokesperson Jessica Baxter said the school board should expect to be updated with the final restorative justice assessment data in May.