A restorative justice meeting was recently held in response to the racist incidents at Westford Academy a couple months ago.
Last week, Superintendent Christopher Chew and School Committee Chair Chris Sanders, as well as consultants Dr. Michele Shannon-Mingo and Pathways to Restorative Communities, held a public meeting via Zoom addressing the racist incidents that occurred at a January 28 girls basketball game between Westford Academy and Wayland High School.
These incidents led Westford Academy Principal Jim Antonelli to ban Westford Academy students from attending the following week’s home and away games and resulted in Wayland High School ceasing competition with Westford Academy for the rest of the spring athletic season.
The Westford School Committee voted on a resolution last month that would utilize restorative justice as the preferred method of seeking justice for the perpetrators of the racially-motivated abuse at the girls basketball game.
Sanders explained that the aim of restorative justice is to “focus on what harm was caused and who was the most affected by the harmful actions and behavior, and then stating how the harm will be addressed and who will be held responsible for it.”
Additionally, Sanders stated that the reason for opting for restorative justice is that it is “more inclusive of the victims who are the most affected by the harmful actions and behavior.” This would include the player from the Wayland High School girls basketball team who was the target of racial abuse from Westford Academy students.
The meeting began with a reflection on how the incident affected the Westford community, with both Sanders and Chew highlighting the goals that are intend to be achieved through the restorative justice process.
The goals included publicly hearing about recent incidents of racism in Westford Public Schools, introducing the basic concepts of restorative justice and restorative practices as a way to build community and respond to harm, understanding why healing from racial oppressions is important for all members of our community, and hearing how to participate in upcoming Community Building Circles and the benefits of using Community Building Circles to address racial healing.
After discussing the primary goals of the meeting, Chew handed it over to Shannon-Mingo who explained that the only way to acknowledge racism through restorative justice in the Westford community was to reflect on the history of restorative justice as well as the history of racism in Westford.
“When we are using restorative justice practices, it is really important for us to acknowledge where these practices come from,” Shannon-Mingo said. “These practices are really a manifestation of the indigenous people of the land of North America, and many of the traditions around using circles and talking pieces come directly from the first people of this land.”
Shannon-Mingo pointed out that is is important for Westford residents to acknowledge that Westford Academy is located on the ancestral land of the Nipmuc tribe, that Pathways to Restorative Communities is located on the ancestral land of the Massachusetts and Pawtucket tribes, and that her organization, The Awakening Circle, is located on the ancestral land of the Jameco and Rockaway tribes.
“Could we just have 30 seconds of silence to acknowledge that this land was not ‘discovered’, but it was all already here,” Shannon-Mingo said before proceeding to hand it back to Chew, who introduced a timeline of the events that will make up the restorative justice process, so that the entire Westford Academy community will be informed on the process.
Chew showcased a timeline to help explain to everyone at the meeting the series of events following the incident at the girls basketball game, and what was on the agenda for the future in regards to furthering the restorative justice process amongst the perpetrators and the rest of the Westford Academy community.
He also explained that the timeline shows the need of the Westford Academy community to address and educate students, faculty, and other community members of the harm that these past racial incidents have caused in order to prevent future incidents.
After the timeline was discussed, Chew handed in over to Candice Julyan of Pathways to Restorative Communities, who conducted a short exercise with the meeting attendees in order to demonstrate the basics of restorative justice.
“Think about a time when you were harmed,” Julyan said speaking to the attendees. “Think about how you felt when you were harmed and write down a word describing what you felt in that particular instance.”
Julyan then compiled a list from the attendees of the feelings they felt when they were harmed, and what they believed they needed to help overcome these feelings.
“I have done this exercise with thousands of people, and the thing that is always missing is punishment,” Julyan said. “When you are the person that was harmed, and when you are the person that causes harm, punishment is not the way to solve the situation.”
“That is really what restorative justice is about, the way to get through these feelings is not through punishment,” she explained.
Julyan concluded that using this process will not only help mend the wounds from the harm that was recently caused, but also help prevent any future harm from happening.
Julyan then handed it back over to Shannon-Mingo who discussed the need for educating students about the history of racial discrimination in the United States and how to build better racial equity and relations between different communities of different racial backgrounds.
The meetings ended with Sanders closing statements on how much work still needs to be done regarding racial equity in in Westford, and he thanked everyone who participated in the restorative justice meeting.
The first community circle which will begin the process of restorative justice will be held on March 10 from 6:00-7:00 p.m. The Westford School Committee provided the link to attend the meeting here.