Teachers Unite and DSC-NY Present Workshop on Fairness Committees
On June 30th, educators and advocates gathered for a training workshop on Fairness Committees entitled, “Building Community in Place of Punishment and Pushout.” As the number of suspensions in NYC schools continues to increase, educators, communities and advocates are seeking alternative disciplinary practices to help create more positive school cultures. Josh Heisler, an educator from James Baldwin School and a member of Teachers Unite, led the workshop. He learned about Fairness Committees a few years ago and decided to implement them in his school; he now leads workshops to educate others on the philosophy and process of Fairness Committees.
Josh began by introducing some of the concepts and values behind Fairness Committees and how they fall under the umbrella of restorative justice practices. Generally, restorative justice seeks to repair relationships, understand all sides of a situation, and demonstrate a genuine concern for other people when developing solutions to conflict. Fairness Committees are rooted in the idea of building community so that students and teachers develop a sense of accountability within that community. When someone violates a norm within the school community, another member of the community may decide that it’s necessary to bring that person to Fairness Committee. He/she is able to reflect on his/her actions and their effect on others, and the group collectively decides how amends can be made and how to reintegrate the person who violated the norm back into the community.
In small groups, participants read and discussed the article, "Deepening Democracy: How One School’s Fairness Committee Offers an Alternative to 'Discipline,'" by Maria Hantzopoulos, which describes the Fairness Committee at Humanities Prep in Manhattan. Josh stated that Fairness Committees are often stronger when the school as a whole is guided by a set of core values. At Humanities Prep, those values are respect for humanity, the intellect, truth, and diversity, and a commitment to peace, justice, and democracy. When someone feels that another has violated one of these core values, he/she can bring that person to Fairness Committee.
There is a general structure that can be followed to set up a Fairness Committee, but each school also has a lot of freedom to decide on the values and specific protocol that guide the practice. Fairness Committees do not generally address issues involving weapons, drugs, or fights, but rather issues such as classroom disagreements, work habits, attendance, or emotional conflicts.
Participants raised practical questions pertaining to issues such as when a Fairness Committee meets, how members are picked, and what kind of training is provided. At James Baldwin School there is one consistent teacher facilitator and all the other student and staff participants change over time. In addition to the teacher facilitator, at least one other teacher and two students are present as part of the Committee, as well as the people involved in the conflict being discussed. Whenever possible, the Committee meets during the day soon after the conflict has occurred. Some participants thought about potential challenges of implementing Fairness Committees in large schools or with students who have disabilities.
The last activity in the workshop was a role-play in which a handful of volunteers acted out a Fairness Committee meeting following a verbal conflict between a student and a school secretary. Participants were able to understand the general procedure and the type of questions that may be asked at a Fairness Committee meeting, as well as the fact that the outcome may be as simple as an apology or may be more long-term, such carrying out a community service project to make up for the wrongdoing and give back to the community.
Emily Shaw – Intern, Dignity in Schools Campaign New York