Restorative justice programs for juveniles in Colorado Springs lead the state and nation in using restorative practices to build community and prevent incarceration.
Five years before the Colorado Congress passed legislation to create restorative justice programs for juveniles, Palmer High School began implementing restorative practices. Lossie Ortiz, a former math teacher at Palmer who became the counselor for at-risk students, created a program to help students he sees as lacking connections at the school and at risk of dropping out before graduation. He asks his students who get in trouble, “What can we do to get you back in here and successful?” Since 2008, he has worked with Palmer High School students, faculty, staff, and school board administration to create a paradigm shift.
Similarly, Teen Court was founded in Colorado Springs in 1994 as an independent non-profit that provides an alternative to sentencing for first-time, misdemeanor, juvenile offenders. Teen Court is a voluntary program that provides juveniles a six-month program that will dismiss their charges instead of going through probation. Cases brought to Teen Court are local arrests or direct referrals from schools where students who would have been ticketed at school for fighting or similar offenses are instead offered this option. “Everything we do is based around restorative justice,” explained Operations Director Erick Groskopf. “This is tremendously effective for these kids because it’s focused on accountability and owning up to what you did.”
Palmer High School, led by Ortiz, uses the restorative practices of conflict mediation, circle practices, and circle mediation in classrooms. All restorative practices are completely voluntary and based on desires of students, staff, and faculty to create connections and repair harms to the community. At the school 15 kids are trained Peer Facilitators who mediate conflict resolution by focusing on “Who did you harm, how were they harmed, and how do you restore that brokenness?” said Ortiz. The cultural shift is “instead of asking how do we punish, we ask how do we restore,” Ortiz explained.
At Teen Court, offenders either go through a peer panel that sentences the juvenile to a combination of community service hours, jury duty on another Teen Court case, and restorative justice courses where they learn who their offenses harmed. The more rigorous process for greater offenses is a teen court trial, where peers and volunteers serve as the jury and student lawyers serve as the attorneys and judge. Professional, local volunteers oversee the process, but the trial is directed by former offenders who have been through the Teen Court system themselves. “This gives the kids a chance to make a difference in another kid’s life,” one volunteer said.
At Palmer, the restorative practices have changed the school culture. The knee-jerk reaction used to be that when students were late to class for three days, they received in-school suspension. “They weren’t coming to class,” said Ortiz. “Now you’re removing them from class because they weren’t coming to class; I don’t get that.”
“It’s grassroots, not someone saying ‘All right, once a week!’ from administration,” said Ortiz. “It’s some ideas and practices that mold to the culture that is in the building. Restorative practices at Palmer would look very different at Dougherty or at Mitchell. Some people at the top end of the administration get a little sideways because the system has always been punitive instead of restorative and it’s hard to make that change.” When dialogue happens, the increased attendance and decreased suspension numbers fall into place. “The way that this school does it is face-to-face, and the result is connection and kids want to come to school, so attendance goes up, suspensions and recidivism go down,” said Ortiz. For him, it is more than the numbers. “I don’t deal with those numbers. I’m not trying to get them to a certain score,” Ortiz added. “If you’re in my class and we’re connecting, then you want to learn. Don’t teach the test—teach the kid. Then the kid will do the best they can.”
Teen Court shows the same results. “We want these kids to learn from their mistakes and, ultimately, not reoffend,” said Groskopf. “It’s all designed to help these kids repair the harm that they did. Because of that, our recidivism rate is only 7 percent, and for those same kids of the same age and same offenses in the traditional court system, it is between 40 and 50 percent.”
Ortiz connects with students through dialogue because “it just makes sense,” he said. Ortiz’s teaching pedagogy from his 22 years as a math teacher has translated to his restorative practices. At first, he considered a mediation session a success if the students did not come back for the same or a similar offense. Then he realized that when a student did not understand a math problem, he tried to teach it to them with a different technique. If that did not work, he tried another one and another one and then pulled in other teachers or peers as resources, rather than give up on the math student. He has adopted the same theory with helping students through conflict: if it does not work the first time, keep trying.
“It is an underestimated resource,” Groskopf said. “It is something that more people should be doing.”