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Restorative Practices in Hungary — Transforming Schools and Prisons

May 17, 2010

From the Restorative E-Forum article by Laura Mirsky:

In April 2010 Vidia Negrea, director of Community Service Foundation (CSF) Hungary, provided an introductory training in facilitating restorative conferences for four different youth group homes in Budapest. This is just the latest development in her work spreading restorative practices in Hungary, which also includes major efforts in schools and prisons.

Psychologist Negrea came to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA, in 2000 to learn about restorative practices and has never looked back. 

Her recent work has been supported by the Ministry of Justice Hungary and the city of Budapest, including a project to reduce aggressive behavior in children and youth, which is bringing restorative practices to six big-city high schools.

At first some of the leaders in these high schools weren’t open to the idea of restorative practices. The success of the practices in the wake of one particular incident changed their minds.

A group of students who had previously gone to different lower schools and now attended the same high school were traveling together on the Metro (subway) to vocational school, when one of them came up with a hazing dare: Everyone had to push someone in front of an oncoming train and then pull them out of the way at the last minute.

Although no one was hurt, a security guard saw this activity and was very alarmed. Instead of calling the police or the media (the latter of which is very common, said Negrea), he called their school principal. The principal asked the head teacher to figure out what had happened. No one would admit responsibility. Finally a children and youth worker contacted Negrea.

When Negrea visited the high school the boys attend, it seemed to her to be in bad shape. Dissatisfaction permeated the entire school community. Student misbehavior was very common. The teachers barely knew each other and provided no mutual support; instead they just complained about the students and the administration. Negrea was given four weeks, one and a half hours per week, to help address the problem. Instead of tackling the hazing incident directly, she decided first to build a sense of community among staff members and between staff and students.

She started with games and feedback exercises. By the third week the students were really involved in the process and had begun putting their chairs into a circle in preparation for the activities themselves. One skeptical teacher sat outside the circle for a couple of weeks, but even she put aside her cynicism when she saw how eager the students were to share their feelings with the rest of the group. By the third week she joined the circle.

That week one of the students gave her feedback, telling her that when she went on talking in class after it was over, he felt frustrated because he had no break between classes and no time to go to the bathroom. The surprised teacher thanked the student for his honesty and the courteous way he had shared it.

The teacher, who was about to retire, was now finally enjoying being in school, thanks to the positive feelings the circles had generated in her class. She decided to try to show the students how she felt by playing a game. Using no words, she directed all the boys in the class to stand in the shape of a big boat, in which they all rowed together. Then she stood in the middle of the “boat” and shouted, with all her heart: “Stroke! Stroke! We’ve got to get to land, no matter what! Don’t give up! I’ll help you!” The boys laughed, surprised at this new behavior from their formerly staid and sour teacher. Now there was a real feeling of community in this classroom.

When the school principal saw a photo of that game, he asked Negrea: “What do you need to implement this program?” In the next session the class decided to develop a plan as a group — students and teachers together — on how to move forward in the future. The plan included regular circles every week, with teachers, students and the children and youth coordinator, as well as a parent night. During the parent night they wanted to ask the restorative questions around the Metro incident: What happened? What were you thinking about at the time? What have you thought about since? What do you think needs to be done to make things right? Who has been affected by what you have done and in what way?

On parents’ night, the students presented the restorative circle process to the parents, but they immediately wanted to blame and punish the students. They also wanted a teacher to accompany the students on the Metro from then on. The students replied that this wasn’t the point: They had learned to control themselves, they maintained. They made an agreement to report on their Metro trip to vocational school every week.

For a month, the students had no trouble on the Metro. At this point it was decided that the whole school should learn about the way the Metro problem had been resolved. This successful resolution then filtered up to the top of the Budapest school district administration. Thus wider implementation of restorative practices began in Budapest’s schools.

By April 2010 the first four schools to implement the practices have given very good feedback on the process, although there are no hard data yet. April’s elections in Hungary brought in a new national administration, so it remains to be seen whether the government will continue to fund restorative practices in schools. However, said Negrea, they’re not going to wait for government money but will find other funding sources.

Read the full article.

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