Thanks to Restorative Justice Montclair, MHS Students can “Drop-In” for Circles, Serenity, and Green Spaces

The RJ Montclair Student Serenity Room is open to students seeking calm.

Montclair, NJ – Providing comfortable and welcome places for students to discuss, decompress, and explore positive choices for conflict resolution is getting easier at Montclair High School. Montclair’s Restorative Justice program hosted an open house to share the spaces Montclair High School students have available to help make their days more calm, productive, and healthy. With welcoming options like a drop-in center and a serenity room, a mobile library with resources for teachers and students, and a lush garden filled with green spaces and outdoor seating, Restorative Justice Montclair is ready to help move Montclair High School towards a more compassionate, inclusive community.

Student notes in the RJ Circle Room.

The Restorative Justice Montclair team of teachers, staff, and students has worked hard to open up physical spaces for students at Montclair High School to use whenever they need them. The RJ Circle Room, the Student Serenity Room, the Drop-In Center, and the outdoor Farm-to-Table Garden are all now available for students and staff.

The RJ Circle Room is used by large and small groups to discuss issues and find solutions.

The Restorative Justice Circle Room, situated inside the high school’s media center, is already a well-used space. The room hosts weekly lunchtime RJ Circles, sometimes around a theme, that are always full. Staff members who have been trained in RJ Circles are present to guide conversations, but peer leaders also take an important role. Counselors, teachers, and students can also request a circle if they feel it would be helpful in addressing growing tension or discomfort within a group, club, or class. However, any student can visit to join a circle during the scheduled lunchtime sessions; they should make sure to be on time though — once the Circle starts, the door is locked to ensure confidentiality and an uninterrupted discussion.

Passion McKnight, a senior at MHS, poses with one of the berms she painted.

A beautiful new space available for smaller, calmer needs is the Student Serenity Room, found in the office suite area that includes Mr. Settembrino’s office, one of the MHS RJ teachers on special assignment. With a water feature, a meditation sand garden, calming scents, and a quiet atmosphere, this room is open for drop-in visits for students who need to catch their breath, relax, relieve anxiety, or take a quick break. Detective Williams, who was visiting the RJ facilities for the first time, was enthusiastic about the Serenity Room as an option for meeting with students. This welcoming room has also been useful for counselors to meet with students in a less formal, neutral zone.

The Student Drop-In Center, near the cafeteria, is open every day.

The Student Drop-In Center, situated near the cafeteria, is open every day during lunch for students to just “drop-in.” Counselors and SACs will staff the room to answer general questions and provide one more place for students to relax with a water, grab a snack, play some scrabble, or color in a small section of the wall mural. If a student has a pressing concern or immediate question, it’s a great option without the need for a scheduled appointment or the stress of figuring out where to turn. The need for the Student Drop-In Center was borne from a survey sent to the student body by the school safety team. The number one request was an accessible, open door where students could go with questions. This room answers that need.

MHS Senior Sanaa Quander is one of the students who have helped in the Farm-to-Table Garden.

The Farm-to-Table Garden, found in the central open courtyard of the MHS building, is a wonderland of lush plants and comfortable seating areas. A place for students to get their hands dirty, meet with friends, and (literally) watch their work grow, stepping into the garden feels like finding an oasis of joy. The berms are decorated with artwork, and the plants, grown from seedlings since winter, include broccoli, peppers, kale, basil, and more. With a newly built deck that includes picnic tables, students can use the garden as an escape and hopefully help keep up the bounty it produces.

Gayl Shepard, the RJ Montclair lead TOSA, and Principal Jeffrey Freeman, at the ribbon cutting.

At the ribbon cutting in the Farm-to-Table Garden, Gayl Shepard, the lead RJ Montclair Teacher on Special Assignment, discussed the hard work of the MHS Administration, MFEE, MEA, and many individuals in helping these student-focused areas become a reality. The Restorative Justice spaces, she said, are a “manifestation of a basic vision, and now we are living in the experience of it.”

A challenge for advocates of Restorative Justice Montclair (RJM) has always been helping the township at large understand how the philosophy and practices to “cultivate an equitable environment where all individuals feel safe, included, heard” work for the betterment of the entire school community as well as caregivers. Far from being a one-time band-aid for conflict between students, RJ must become a long-term embedded part of the school district culture. The newly created and revamped spaces at MHS will encourage work to bolster respect for all and diffuse conflicts before they boil over. Learning to empathize and relate to others on a daily basis, as RJ works to make reality, will surely be more doable with a variety of rooms to facilitate the work.

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  1. I want to love this but every study seems to disprove this approach. There are a lot of assumptions made and from what I hear the teachers often “check out” from this process especially with the most difficult students.

  2. Hi Townie: RJ programs need buy in, it’s true. And it’s intense work that takes time — like most cultural change. But my experience has been deeply positive, and evidence shows that in schools, suspensions lessen and safety rises when RJ practices are consistent and persistent.

    However, the spaces detailed in this post are immediate boons to the community as they provide logistical space for important discussions, accessible places for information, and areas separate from the hustle everyday high school life. My takeaway from the tour was that the RJ team and the staff in general really want to help the student body take advantage of the varied options presented. I hope many do and it becomes the norm for more than the students who are already comfortable with the circles, garden, and such.

  3. Thanks. RJ reduces suspensions – the express goal- but I haven’t seen evidence of increased safety or reduced misbehavior (fighting , bullying, disrupting). Could you provide the evidence you alluded to?

  4. Hi Lacamina: Other than my personal and anecdotal “evidence” — which I don’t think would be satisfactory to you since I don’t know whether or not we know each other off-line. I’d be going to google, as anyone else would. During the 2016 election cycle I promised myself I wouldn’t do research for other people anymore without compensation. (This was re-affirmed since the COVID19 pandemic!) I found that anything I presented became fodder for more and more requests for information the asker could also access. I’m not saying *you* would do that, but it’s a personal boundary I feel obligated to maintain.

  5. Kristen,
    That’s a curious response; i was asking you to support your claim (not mine) that “… suspensions lessen and safety rises when RJ practices are consistent and persistent.” Alas, I’m afraid I can’t pay you to support your claim – personal boundary 🙂

    FWIW, here’s a summary of a couple studies that may contradict that claim (not sure if any good)

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