Editor's note: The names of the Portage High School students involved in the restorative justice program have been changed to protect their privacy.
PORTAGE — Jackson readily admits he was a "troublemaker" in middle school.
In the seventh grade, he was written up for disciplinary actions 183 times.
In the eighth grade, he was expelled.
"I came here from Chicago in the sixth grade. It was a different mentality here," said Jackson, who just completed his junior year. The problems, he said, stemmed from feeling disrespected by his fellow students, resulting in him acting out and causing problems.
When he started his freshman year, he recalled, he was called in the office by Sandra Porter-Phillips, the district's social and emotional learning specialist and Teen Court coordinator, and met with her and a cousin.
"My cousin told them I wasn't going to trust them," Jackson said. That's when he was introduced to the idea of restorative justice.
A member of a restorative circle the last two years, Jackson is on the road to completing his high school education. He hasn't been expelled. He's not that troublemaker. He's on the football, basketball and track teams and earns Bs and Cs on his report cards.
He attributes the turnaround to Porter-Phillips, the school and its embracing of the restorative justice or restorative practices principles.
"They gave me an outlet to relieve my anger. They let me vent. They just unscrew your lid," he said, adding sitting in the group on a weekly basis allows the dozen or so students to share their problems and issues.
"They show you many ways to deal with many things," he said, adding the group — most of whom didn't know each other before the joining the circle — learn to trust each other and, more importantly, respect each other.
What is restorative justice/practices?
Portage Township Schools Superintendent Amanda Alaniz said the concept behind restorative justice is "discipline with dignity and support."
"Because I said so is never the response," said Alaniz.
Used in the corporate world and by police, the idea behind restorative justice is multilevel. At its base, the idea is to find out why a student is behaving the way he or she is behaving and to get them to understand why their behavior is inappropriate. The approach also requires the offending student to make amends to the victim, whether it is another student or teacher. It also offers support to offending students.
Alaniz said it does not replace other disciplinary actions, but works as a preventative measure to help students who are exhibiting behavior which chronically gets them in trouble. It also holds them responsible for their actions, she said.
It can, she said, be used at the elementary level when two students get into a playground fight through the high school when students are chronically truant or being disrespectful to staff.
School Board member Cheryl Oprisko said she was introduced to the concept at a National School Boards Association conference and was impressed with the results other school districts were reporting.
"It reduces expulsions," she said, adding the idea is to "get these kids to recognize why they are doing the behavior they are doing."
"Some of these troubled kids are really leaders. We need to take those leadership skills and turn them to an advantage and make mentors of them to lead other kids," said Oprisko.
Alaniz said the concept is also used in the district's Teen Court program, but the students involved in restorative circles haven't reached the point where they are referred to the court.
"Three years ago Sandra and I went to a two-day conference in Chicago," said PHS Principal Max Gill. "It kind of changed my life. These kids, you can yell at them. A lot of these kids, at home are getting yelled at. It doesn't work to yell at them at school."
"Restorative practices try to make the kid understand what they did wrong. We know they have certain issues and we are working to resolve those issues," said Gill, adding all of the school's assistant principals have also been trained in the concept.
Merrillville Community Schools is also introducing the concept, said Danny Lackey, director of diversity and student support services.
"It really focuses on making the kid more a part of the process, of getting the kid to own up to what he did and how what he did impacted others. They are required to make amends," Lackey said, adding the process allows students to see more clearly how what they've done has impacted others, helping to develop empathy.
This year an in-service training was held for teachers, he said, adding they are working on a three-year plan to fully implement the restorative practices, aiming at implementing it in the elementary schools so the concept grows "from the ground up."
"Its like my safe haven," PHS sophomore Tiffany said of the restorative circle at the school.
Students are recommended to the circle for various reasons, from disciplinary to emotional issues.
"I asked him for the worst 20 kids he could find, the kids who were in trouble," Porter-Phillips said, adding the idea was to turn their lives around so that they would stay out of trouble and finish school.
"Trust is the key. None of these kids felt like they could trust anyone. All kids need a mentor, someone they can believe in and trust in," she said, adding, through the circle, the students have learned to trust in each other.
"I was going through some stuff. I was really depressed and down. I was depressed for a really long time," Tiffany said, before being recommended for the group. "Hearing the other people helps me know I'm not alone."
Valerie said her "mouth" had gotten her into trouble since the second grade. She was kicked out of seventh grade. She was referred to the program last year.
"It is a big support group that helps you restore trust. You learn you need people, need to express yourself in a positive way," she said. "Now when I smile, it is genuine."
At 17, Ricky had already seen the inside of the juvenile lock-up facility.'"Last year I was getting involved in some pretty bad activities," he said, skipping school and getting into a fight. Because of his problems, he said, he completed his freshman year with only one credit towards graduation. His year, he's got 10.
"They addressed a lot of the problems I had. I have changed a lot. They tell me what I'm doing wrong, address it and lay out the alternatives," he said, adding, more importantly, "They make me want to do it right."