For me as a former principal, Friday night football under the lights at Washburn High School in Minneapolis was full of excitement and anticipation. These games were a perfect opportunity to meet community members, talk with students from all over the city and diligently watch interactions that happen when emotions are high. Sometimes poor sportsmanship reared an ugly head from students, parents or others, not unlike what happened at the Sept. 2 game between Washburn and North High that was the subject of a Sept. 7 commentary by Erica Wallace (“Brawl was unnerving reminder of the value of sportsmanship”).
Setting a tone and expectation before these games with players, students, coaches and parents is essential. I have had the pleasure to witness expert coaches and teachers accomplish this task. Yet, sometimes tempers flare and mistakes happen when emotions are high and rivalry is present. Blame does nothing; taking responsibility and repairing the harm done is a way to prevent further conflict and provide the opportunity to hear how this “brawl” affects the entire community.
This is what a “restorative” response entails — bringing students together in a circle to listen and speak with the intent of creating ideas for a better response in the future. Separating combatants is necessary; sometimes removal from a situation is imperative for safety, but that alone rarely sets the tone for a real change in the future. Often, once a student is punished or threatened by others, revenge is likely both on and off the field. A restorative response takes the time to break it down enough that all of those affected can be a part of the solution. Time we must invest for lasting change.
For more than four years at Washburn, we created this restorative climate, and it was not quick, easy or fully accepted. But when a conflict occurred over the hanging of a black baby doll in 2013, students and staff members were prepared to take on this harm in a restorative manner. Chaos did not break out; lessons were learned, and the students, staff and community were heard. This was not covered by the press and not discussed openly, most likely because it was hard work that was not flashy or quick. Restorative practice is a commitment to ensuring the integrity and moral code that commentary writer Wallace wants us to consider as a community.
The “brawl” at the football game is a chance for both the Washburn and North school communities to give students an opportunity to repair the harm done and set the tone for the future. I know there are many students and staff members at both schools who understand this and who, given the support, would welcome a response beyond the penalty box.
Carol Markham-Cousins, a former principal of Washburn High School, is a restorative practice consultant.