Restorative Justice: An Old Voice & Way in New Times (Ken Johnson)

BTAboutThemAugust 8, 2015 was a great night for me. In front of my peers, at the Florida Authors & Publishers Association President’s Awards, I received not one but two gold medals for my book, Unbroken Circles for Schools. But, what really moved me were the words of wisdom given by Mark Wayne Adams, FAPA president and multi-award winning author & illustrator, before the awards were given.

Mark told us there is always this one person in our life that encourages us to step out and do something great. He told us the medals will not matter and instead we need to focus on the one person that brought us here to the awards.


Each time I went to receive my award, Mark made it a point to tell the audience great things about me. When I thanked my publisher, Terri Gerrell, for having faith in me and my message (most authors can understand where I was coming from) she simply said, very sternly might I add, “It’s a good book!”

Ken Johnson receiving gold medal1Later that night, someone was joking and said, “Hey Ken, how many awards did you get – four?” To that I meekly replied, “Just two.” Not thinking of how it may have sounded, I heard a joking reply, “Yeah, JUST TWO!” Looking around the table, I laughed in joy because my peers and my loving wife were by my side and I was in a good place.

After putting a little blurb on Facebook about the book doing well, a friend of mine wrote back that the award merely proved to me what they already knew about me – I nearly came to tears. Again, I was in a good place.

I say all of this to make note how, for me, I was always pushing and uplifting the book while family, friends, and colleagues were instead pushing and uplifting ME.

When is the last time someone has done that for you? When have you done that same thing for someone else?


In the United States, just a little under fifty percent of households with children are underemployed. Underemployment often translates into a child having unmet needs. Children of impoverished homes tend to have chronic illnesses, suffer neglect and abuse at higher rates, witness more domestic violence, and generally do not have the social resources a child needs to cope and adapt. Hunger and malnourishment are huge problems.

Moreover, there is a growing trend of child abandonment in America where parents, both mothers and fathers, are leaving children to fend for themselves for days, weeks, months and sometimes years at a time. Lest we not forget, there are also circumstances where middle and upper class children are suffering in plain sight, in their own unique and sometimes obfuscated ways.

So, these children come to schools where they are increasingly expected to perform like trained animals due to performance-based funding. Mom just got beat, but Johnny is told he needs to learn a nonsensical Common Core math problem or else he’ll be sent home – where he’ll probably be beaten or have to cry himself to sleep hungry and with a pillow over his head to drown out the yelling.

His friend Billy has a different problem. Billy has no mom or dad to take care of him this foreseeable month and so he has to “couch surf” from friend’s house to friend’s house hoping he might get a hot shower, a warm meal and a couch to sleep on for the night. Across town, in a gated community, young William feels much like Billy, being that he has to travel from house to house like a hobo – carrying his clothes and belongings in a small suitcase. This week, he is with his dad who left him with Cindy, dad’s latest girlfriend, because of yet another business trip. Next week, William will be at his mom’s apartment, where a similar occurrence will happen. His only companions are the trinkets his parents give him – mostly out of guilt for not being there for him. His only release comes from the self-cutting he ritualistically does to drown out the pain – the evidence of such cleverly concealed by his long, baggy clothing.


Children sometimes get placed in the “backseat” of society even though they are our future. We do this for a number of reasons. Sometimes it is due to simple ignorance. Other times, it is out of fear due to sensational media stories. Other times, it is because we let our need for money and happiness cloud our views on things. And still, there are a plethora of other reasons. Yet one thing remains constant through it all – the children’s voice is muted.

As school starts back up, we are once again on track to see the same old trends. We can expect to see nearly 2.2 million children being arrested at school for trivial offenses. Each school day, we can expect to see 7,000 children drop out. And we can expect to also see students suspended in great numbers – each suspension now known to increase a child’s chances of dropping out by fifty percent. All of this, academics now pose, is aimed at skewing performance-based testing by culling out the poor performers. But, what if I could tell you these numbers could be turned around while also saving lives?


Restorative Justice is a very old voice and methodology which has been adapted for our contemporary times. You know, when I was first training to be a mediator, the instructors said to never say, “So, what’s your story” or “Tell me your side of things.” I was also reminded that a person’s problems are not mine and I have to remain objective, neutral and always allow the problem to be owned by the persons with the problem.

RJ does just the opposite of this. Essentially, RJ thrives off storytelling. We are not talking about fictional storytelling, rather a person being able to express their views and retell an account of what happened to them, how they felt, what they expected, etc. This discussion is driven by a facilitator who is as much involved in the problems and issues as are the people who are talking about the problem. At the heart of this is something profound – focused attention. Focused attention is focusing direct attention on someone to hear their story, to empathize with their situation, to show genuine compassion, to encourage them, to uplift them, and to offer insight and counsel.


In a typical classroom situation, the teacher is usually involved either as a facilitator or a circle keeper in the process. A round of praise is generally done so students can uplift each other and offer encouragement – something child psychologists are finding to be profoundly beneficial. Today, maybe the teacher decided Susan was a little “off,” so she inquired as to everyone’s well-being. When it comes around to Susan, the circle learns how a girl from another school has been tormenting her via text messaging and social media. The girl makes fun of Susan’s appearance and the rented home. She can’t turn off the phone because her mother uses the phone to keep in contact with Susan between breaks waiting tables. Susan can’t use the computer because the school has gone to a computer-only system of paperless instruction. So, the students offer support, possible solutions, etc.

KyleesitJanet tells the circle how she went through the same thing and what worked for her. In the end, Susan agrees to tell her mother what is going on, a report is made to Principal Tsulakis to let him know what is going on and a school counselor is called in.

Two weeks later, Susan’s bully is now in a similar session where it’s revealed the girl, Erica, was being abused by her mother’s fiancee when she was at work. Now, Erica is getting help and Susan is no longer bullied. In the end, the two even become friends as they call each other every day to make sure the other is okay and doing well.

It sounds different. Some might even say, “Oh he had to use bullying! It’s the new, hot-button word – just tell her to get over it and move on!” But here’s the deal: We are now finding out how bullying acts as a catalyst for suicide – which is the top reason for premature death in teens and pre-teens. We also know now that bullies generally are bullied themselves. The act of bullying essentially is a spin-off of the classical “fight or flight” response where the child loses power in one aspect of their life, then try to rob a weaker person of power through bullying. Restorative Justice diffuses the situation through allowing all parties a right to tell their story through the implementation of focused attention on the individual. In a nutshell, it puts people in a good place by giving a voice back to those who once had none. ###

KJohnsonbookKen Johnson is a culturalist and conflict specialist. His book, Unbroken Circles for Schools, deals with issues of conflict in the school system while also proposing common sense, cost-effective solutions using Restorative Justice strategies. Until November, you can get $9 off Ken’s book by entering in coupon code “NACRJ” at checkout when you go to


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