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Queanbeyan South Public School, New South Wales

Real Justice: Justice without alienation

The context | Background | Beginnings | Making progress | Outcomes


The context

Queanbeyan is a culturally diverse rural town in New South Wales, close to Canberra. The population includes many families from low socioeconomic backgrounds

Queanbeyan South Public School is a neighbourhood primary school, established in 1968 and serving the needs of the local population. The enrolment in 2004 is 640. Of this, 15% are Aboriginal (the largest number of any school in the area), 9% are from Macedonian backgrounds and a further 19% come from other non-English speaking backgrounds. Most students live close by and walk to school.


assembly

The school includes numbers of students with physical, intellectual or emotional disabilities and provides support classes for children with mild intellectual disabilities or emotional disturbance. There are also Opportunity Classes for gifted students in Years 5 and 6.

In 1999, in recognition of the early learning needs of its students, the school established a preschool and playgroup. Although these initiatives targeted Aboriginal families both are open to all and provide children with quality preschool experiences at very little cost.

The school staff tends to be experienced and stable. There are strong ESL and Reading Recovery programs and a teacher of Macedonian language and culture who works with both Macedonian and English speaking students.

Among a range of programs, Queanbeyan South has recently involved Aboriginal community members in the 'Maths in Context' initiative.


More about other programs...

Background

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Paul Britton

Paul Britton has been principal of Queanbeyan South PS for almost ten years. He was brought up in Ballina and subsequently worked in a variety of schools around New South Wales.

In 2001 and 2002, violent behaviours were increasing in the school and the numbers of students on detention and suspension were rising.

Paul talks about what happened.

We were finding that our discipline procedures were sometimes just further alienating kids, and often the ones you can least afford to alienate, because your relationships may not be strong. And the same kids were in trouble again and again. It just wasn't working and we needed to find a new paradigm.

'Real Justice' became a way of coming to grips with difficult discipline issues. Other people call it restorative justice or youth conferencing.


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Nancy Johnson

Nancy Johnson has been the Aboriginal Education Assistant at the school for sixteen years. Her office is beside the principal's office in the main reception area of the school, making her very accessible to Aboriginal parents. She has this to say.

These days, there's a lot of Koori perspective all around the place. We need a strong community and that"s happening. Years ago, a lot of kids couldn't settle down to school but now they can get a flying start because of the play group and pre-school.

With the Real Justice, families can get involved and a lot of them like that. And it's helping a lot of kids to work out how they need to act, to get on in the world.

We've had Koori school captains and vice-captains. That makes me proud. But I'm proud of lots of the kids, and when I hear that someone's done well, or someone else has become an apprentice butcher, that makes me proud too.

My door is always open for anybody to come in.



Beginnings

Paul continues.

There were two ways of reacting to the situation. One was to make discipline harsher and the other was to look for something different. We opted for the latter approach.

We were looking for strategies that taught students moral and ethical behaviours without diminishing their relationships with their peers and teachers. We wanted students to learn about and accept the consequences of their behaviours. We wanted them to not re-offend. We also wanted them to be reaffirmed as individuals as they learnt these skills, within the supportive framework of family and school. We wanted to develop their sense of empathy and identification with their victims. We wanted the students to be empowered, rather than become powerless 'victims of the system'.

We saw this as part of their education, as part of their learning about themselves, the world and their part in it. At this early stage, we knew what we wanted, but had no idea how achieve these objectives. We started amassing all the objective data we could that might clarify the problem and that would give us a baseline for further work.

So we collected data about detentions, suspensions and critical incidents involving some sort of verbal or physical violence against teachers.


Making progress

The school executive then adopted two principles.

  • It was important to look for new ideas as more of the same would produce more of the same results.
  • We should change those things that were within our control and we would seek outside solutions for things outside our control.

As a result, a formal School Program Review on student and staff welfare was requested. The review was managed by a steering committee of school stakeholders and it aggregated and clarified the concerns of the school community.

The problems needed to be tackled simultaneously on a multitude of fronts, all centering on strong teacher-student relationships. A plan was then drawn up, with four areas of focus.

1. Revitalising the principles on which our discipline schemes were based

By this time, the concepts of 'Real Justice' and the work of Terry O'Connell in Australia and Ted Wachtel in America had come to the attention of the school.

Advice from the local Student Welfare consultant then led to the engagement of a suitably qualified person to in-service staff on the principles of Real Justice in January 2003. This was then adopted on a trial basis and the results were to be monitored.

Real Justice focuses on restitution and is based on a carefully structured 'conference' involving the student and all those affected by a particular incident. All investigations into incidents are prefaced by the question 'What happened?' This takes the focus from the individual to the behaviour and reassures every child that their version of events will be listened to. Teachers were to be consistent in their use of these strategies, from major playground incidents to minor classroom problems.

2. Upskilling our students

We felt it to be important that we give students some assertiveness training and anti-bullying strategies. When threatened, a child was to state in a loud voice: 'Stop it, I don"t like it', and walk away. In many minor situations, this is more than enough to de-escalate potential physical violence.

This was implemented in all classrooms in Term 2 of 2003, and evening sessions were conducted to inform parents. Weekly lessons were also written up in the school newsletter to keep parents informed.

3. Revamping our policies and strategies

It was important that all teachers worked within the same framework, albeit at age- appropriate levels. We considered that, even if some teachers had not embraced the concepts, if at least their actions were in concert with their peers, commitment would come over time as they saw the effects. For some, it was difficult to give up the seductive appeal of 'swift justice'. Real Justice took up time.

The Student Welfare committee collated and updated all welfare policies to reflect the focus on restitution and the following of relational questioning procedures. New teachers were inducted in the procedures, and the same facilitator invited to revisit for monitoring and troubleshooting.


4. Modifying our organisation to cater better for challenging students

The organisation needed to change to reflect the change in focus. We felt that some students were 'victims of our organisation', and it needed to change to better meet their needs.

Among the changes were as follows.

  • A specialist class of six students was established to cater for students who did not fit into normal school classes.
  • We established a lunchtime 'Positive Playground', for students who had difficulty socialising, were bullying or could not play happily together or take turns. This was supervised by the school executive and teacher volunteers and had a high teacher:student ratio.
  • The lunchtime Detention Room was now the 'Conference Room' where executive teachers took students through the Real Justice procedures.
  • We gained a grant for a Breakfast Program that gave all students an opportunity to have a healthy breakfast and some friendly interaction with some adults before school. This is staffed by a teacher and community volunteers.

Paul Britton discusses Real Justice in practice.

The way we used to think about 'discipline' was in terms of punishment. Sure, the child has committed something that is offensive to particular people or to the system, but it seems that in society first there's blame and then there's punishment. So in schools we seem to reflect that a bit too... if a child does something wrong then they must be punished. And we forget why we punish. Usually it's as a deterrent. But too often it just alienates and the same kids are in trouble time after time.

Real Justice is a way of trying not to get them to do it again without necessarily alienating. I think it goes back to Indigenous ideas about bringing extended families together when someone has done something wrong. Anyway, it's good for all kids, but it's definitely good for Aboriginal kids here, because (when there's a big, important incident) you bring in family members and that helps to reduce alienation.

The old way was about labelling, and as soon as you start to label you are alienating...



Outcomes

Although there is still further work to be done in relation to verbal abuse (and threatening behaviour), the school is quietly confident that it is on the right path to creating a safer and happier school environment. More details...

Notable features of the data below include the following.

  • The numbers of detentions and suspensions are both trending downwards.
  • The proportion of Aboriginal suspensions continues a longer-term trend downwards.
  • The number of critical incident reports made by teachers has also declined markedly, and the numbers of staff taking leave due to work-related stress dropped from six in 2002-3 to none in 2004.

Detentions and Suspensions

Suspensions of Aboriginal students

Reports made by teachers

footprints

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