While an excellent education is the cornerstone of the Packer experience, ask almost anyone at Packer what they appreciate most about it, and the answer is community. Packer nurtures and prizes strong relationships. Community is a value we devote a great deal of time actively developing in our students, from our youngest to our oldest. That commitment to caring for one another is woven through our mission, down to its final phrase: act with purpose and heart.
This view of Packer as a living, dynamic community manifests itself in many ways. In recent years, students have been given more opportunities to advocate for themselves and teach one another about causes they believe in. Today, many students see Packer as an environment in which they have influence, and take responsibility, to make it a better, fairer, and more equitable school for everyone. And when some members of the Upper School began to feel that the school’s disciplinary procedures were falling short of this commitment to community, they set out to improve them.
The Student-Faculty Justice Committee, or SFJC, is a body of eight students and up to three teachers or staff members who review certain disciplinary cases. Students who violate a school policy or community agreement can be referred to SFJC by their dean, though some cases are not deemed appropriate to be addressed by students. On an average year, about half of the cases SFJC reviews relate to academic infractions. (Before 2019-20, SFJC’s stood for Student Faculty Judiciary Committee.)
For a long time, SFJC employed a traditional discipline model, focusing on the details of the infraction and determining an appropriate consequence. In recent years, however, a shift has taken place.
“We wanted to make sure students are given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” says Maria Nunes, Head of the Upper School since Fall 2019. “It’s important to recognize that adolescents, and all of us, make mistakes sometimes — how you deal with the aftermath of a poor decision is what matters most.” So in the 2019-20 school year, the Committee began to adopt a restorative process, which emphasizes reflection, accountability, addressing and repairing the impact to the community.
Then, in June 2020, the “Black at" movement reached Packer. On the Instagram account BlackatPCI, alumni of color shared stories of (among other things) how disciplinary procedures at Packer seemed to be applied differently for them than for their white peers — and captured how deeply those experiences damaged their sense of belonging.
In the year that followed, SFJC “intensified its work,” says Maria. “We brought in more voices and experiences, and began integrating our disciplinary processes with our anti-racism/anti-bias commitments.”
More Inclusive Membership
Part of the value and intention of SFJC is that its student representatives offer the student perspective.
But for a long time, there was a built-in flaw, explains Upper School English teacher Meredith Whitehouse (below), who coordinated SFJC from 2019 to 2021: “When I first joined, the Committee was almost all white boys. And it was by election: you gave a speech and you were elected. The idea was that you had to have a spotless disciplinary record. You had to be a really upstanding citizen, and you got to sit in judgment of other people in probably their most uncomfortable moment.”
One of their first changes was to scrap the stump speech and election in favor of a written statement and an interview with the Committee.
“The pool of students who applied in 2019 was already very different than it had been in the old model,” says Meredith. That year, the selection process prioritized students of color, and in 2020, “we explicitly said, ‘To balance the committee out, we’re only taking students of color. In the future, that won't be the case, but this year that is a prerequisite for joining SFJC.’”
But other structural obstacles still caused inequities. As four-year SFJC member Jake Srebnick ’21 recalls, “Somebody on our committee lived in New Jersey, and he would often show up late to our meetings and be threatened with expulsion from SFJC. Liv Furman [’20] and I were like, ‘So why do our meetings start so early?’ We moved our meetings [to Community Time, designated for student activities] — then we both realized that more people could join.”
“A restorative model says that anybody who's interested in the work should be able to participate in the work,” says Meredith. “So now I say to kids, ‘If you've come into contact with the discipline system, you're actually well suited for this work. You know what it feels like.’ It's just a totally different approach to getting kids involved. And that really opens up who's going to be interested in it.”
A Values-Based, Community-Centered Approach
Then there was the deeper philosophical shift in how SFJC used its authority to foster community. Adopting restorative practices would align their work more closely to Packer’s values. They invited Nicole Lavonne Smith of the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility to train them in the principles of restorative justice.
“A restorative model puts relationships and community building at the center,” says Meredith. “It focuses on repairing the relationship between the one who caused the offense and the person harmed.”
The group liked the specific model of “circling” and Nicole helped them develop a process for implementing it at Packer. With in-person circling, the Committee and the student would sit in a circle and enhance the group’s listening by passing around a physical “talking piece” to indicate whose turn it is to speak. Health protocols this year prevented in-person meetings, but Zoom posed no obstacle to the key restorative practice: a process of inquiry that is a conversation much more than a hearing.
They made another change to better support the students who come before them. In the past, students were required to bring an adult, usually their assigned advisor. Now they are invited to bring anyone in the school community who they feel can support them.
Supporting Students in the “Aftermath of a Poor Decision”
SFJC’s new restorative approach also takes into account the needs of the person who may have committed the harm. “Now we ask ‘What do you need to be able to make this right? What do you need to be able to be successful? What do you need to be able to be a productive part of this community?’”
Zola Narisetti ’23, who has served on SFJC for two years, describes this shift. The circles are “more of a time to reflect. There are always consequences to our actions, but it's not like you're doomed for the rest of your time at Packer. You made a mistake, you'll learn, and maybe you'll even join the committee and try to help other people who made the same mistake.”
Supporting people through their mistakes is especially noteworthy today. “There's been so much talk in the public sector about ‘canceling’ people and [the inclination to say] ‘You did this thing and you can't come back from it,’” says Meredith. “At Packer, at a high school, when you're young, there has to be a path back. If you're part of this community, and we’ve brought you into this community, it’s on us to help you be accountable, understand what you did, and make amends.”
Meredith recalled an “aha moment” for the Committee at the end of one circle this year. “A student on the committee asked the peer who had been referred to them, ‘Do you feel supported by this process?’ What a question to think of, off the cuff! And the student responded, ‘Actually, yes.’”
They decided to incorporate that question to the end of every circle.
As Packer’s Director of Diversity and Equity, Semeka Smith-Williams puts it: “Before, part of the goal was to enforce rules and regulations. Now it’s about extending care.”
Confronting Bias Directly
As part of their training in restorative processes, SFJC’s members were trained in cultural competency.
“Just like any system in the U.S., our system isn’t free of bias just because we’re good people. There have to be intentional steps taken to challenge assumptions, to engage biases, to ensure that consequences are consistently enforced,” says Semeka. “There’s a deeper consciousness and more explicit dialogue about how their experiences may differ from the experience of the case.”
Zola explains: “A majority of the BlackatPCI posts [about disciplinary issues] addressed things that had been dealt with. But if alumni are still talking about them, obviously they're still hurt. Obviously they felt that there was something missing, that the process of fixing the relationship wasn't successful.
“That’s why we reach out to students, days or even months after the process, to make sure they felt heard,” Zola continues. “We ask, ‘Is there anything we can do? Here is a list of resources,’ to wrap everything up. And if it doesn’t feel resolved, we can have another circle. We're just there to listen and support.
“For parents of kids of color, it’s important to know that their kids are safe in the Packer community, that they're not going to be overly penalized compared to their white counterparts if they make a mistake — which some BlackatPCI posts mentioned. Now, the school’s response isn’t going to make them ‘switch off’ or hate school for the rest of their lives. Packer is really trying to move forward to a safer and equal community where, if your kid gets in trouble, you shouldn't have to worry that their future is completely crushed.”
Extending the Circle
Though restorative justice tends to be pigeonholed as having only to do with disciplinary issues, Meredith sees it as “much, much bigger than that.”
“It involves the way teachers teach, the way that we prioritize relationships, the way that we work toward knowing each other better and listening to each other better. It’s an entirely different way of being with other people that is not just about moments when harm happens.”
Meredith sees the expansion of a restorative mindset as an opportunity for a powerful culture shift for dealing with conflicts. If two people had an issue, they could have a circle between them with a moderator and a support person.
“Ultimately, that's where SFJC wants to go. We always say: we want to work ourselves out of a job.”
— Karin Storm Wood is the Communications Director at Packer.