April 1, 2019

E4E-Boston Member Testimony to City Council on Creating Safe School Environments

On Tuesday, March 26th, E4E-Boston Outreach Director, Denise Manning testified at a City Council on behalf of educator, Monique Symes. The hearing centered on the safety and security measures taken to create safe school environments.

Monique’s testimony shared the importance of restorative justice practices in schools, embedded in school communities, to build relationships with students in effect helping students feel safer and more in confident in the school community.

Restorative Justice community circles are a way to help welcome new/all students, encompass our values as a school community, and allows incoming students to feel part of our school culture.

Below is the written testimony that was submitted to the City Council.

Good afternoon Boston City Council. My name is Denise Manning. I am an Outreach Director with Educators for Excellence, a teacher-led advocacy nonprofit. I want to thank Councilwomen Essaibi-George and Janey for attending and speaking with educators on E4E’s Policy Team regarding recommendations to foster positive school culture in schools. I also invite members of the Council to speak with the team on the importance of restorative justice practices. Today, I will be sharing testimony written by an educator and member who could not be here today as she is in the classroom at the time of this hearing. Thank you.

“My name is Monique Symes. I am a 7th and 8th-grade teacher at McCormack Middle School in Dorchester. I want to thank you for the opportunity to give testimony on the importance of approaching student safety in an equitable way that is student-centered and prioritizes relationship building.

As an educator at the McCormack, we are blessed to have a guidance counselor, a dean specifically for 7th and 8th graders, as well as a restorative justice coordinator and counseling staff from Trinity Boston Foundation. Without all of these pieces working together in our school community, we would not be able to support over 95% of our students who are considered high needs.

As a teacher, restorative practices, in particular, has allowed me to contribute to our school’s safe and supportive learning environment for my students. I would urge all schools to adopt restorative justice best practices in classrooms. When it is done well, restorative justice is deliberately woven into all aspects of the school. All educators should invest in restorative justice practices and be trained in how to implement it into their classes.

Restorative circles have been useful to students and staff to build community creating a safer and more supportive environment for learning and personal growth. I have seen students help to push each other to excel and work through interpersonal challenges. Building an authentic community through restorative practices makes a difference in students feeling confident and comfortable being in the building. I had a student last year that missed many days of school due to a traumatic experience and felt disconnected from her relationships within the building as a result. When she returned to school she would go through whole days and say nothing at all. I noticed this and, because of all that I had learned from our circles, I was able to reach out to her friends and ask them to sit with her at lunch. This allowed her to get back into the habit of communicating and rebuild relationships with friends, which in turn helped her to reinvest in school. Knowing our students and understanding how to support them is important to the restorative practices model.

It is also a common practice in our school community to have community building circles for new students, introducing students to the concept of restorative practices and welcoming them into our community. The circle is not large, usually, there are no more than 10 people including staff members. Some students are nervous but all of them have taken the opportunity to share positive and negative experiences that occurred before entering our school community. The circles are an opportunity to share what they need from us and each other to be successful. As an educator, I want to learn what worries they carry, and how we as a community can support them. Also, welcoming students through circles encompasses our values as a school community and allows incoming students to feel part of our school culture.

Over the winter, I met weekly with ten educators from across Boston as a part of the E4E-Boston Policy Team. In those meetings, we developed recommendations based on educator feedback and research around how schools can foster a more positive culture. Increasing access to restorative justice as an alternative to punitive discipline practices is one of the recommendations that will be featured in our paper this spring. Restorative practices are essential to creating safe and supportive schools. We need students to know that we’re here for them, that “we have your back”. The City of Boston should invest in giving schools and teachers the training and support to implement these practices. It is important that students know from the beginning they are valued, that WE SEE YOU.

Thank you for listening.”