Natalia Flores’ classroom resounds with the sounds of middle school: a student bursting through the door seconds before the bell to grab a snack or bottle of water. Two students reconciling after a fight. A parent rejoicing over the phone that their student’s academic performance is improving.
Flores is at the center of it all, working to replace punitive measures against delinquent students with restorative justice practices.
Flores is a restorative justice specialist at Rhodes Middle School in the San Antonio Independent School District. Restorative justice, a model that was first developed in the 1970s, aims to repair harm and rebuild relationships rather than punish. The purpose of her role is to give administrators an alternative option to punitive actions such as suspension, detention or expulsion after students get into trouble. She also works with students who are simply struggling or feel overwhelmed.
Flores works with students one-on-one or in group settings to talk through whatever is distracting them from their coursework or influencing their behavior. This can include students who’ve been in fights on or off campus or who are dealing with bullying or rumors, difficult situations at home or academic struggles.
Rhodes Middle School is nestled within San Antonio’s poorest zip code, 78207, on the city’s West Side. Rhodes students deal with all the issues that come with poverty: unstable housing, fractured families and few positive role models.
Flores is a staff member at Empower House, which for the past 24 years has provided community health services, youth programming and advocacy opportunities — all through the lens of restorative justice.
Jenny Castro, the director of programs at Empower House, said the model is rooted in indigenous practices.
Castro said the nonprofit wanted to better support students, but felt like they couldn’t really do so without having a presence in schools.
The nonprofit approached SAISD with a proposal to place restorative justice specialists on campuses to help the faculty and staff rethink discipline in school. Their first staff member was placed at Bowden Academy on the East Side in 2019. The program expanded to Rhodes for the 2022-23 school year when the school’s principal signed off on bringing an Empower House staff member on campus.
Flores, who is pursuing her master’s in social work, takes an evidence and data-driven approach to understanding why students behave the way they do, and how to reach students who likely wouldn’t respond well to more traditional forms of discipline.
“You can’t really help a kid — or help anyone — if you don’t understand their intersectionalities, their background,” she said. “It’s important to understand how culture is going to impact your personality, especially in a community that’s so largely Hispanic.”
Middle school is a challenging time for all students, as they navigate surging hormones, changing bodies, a higher level of academic rigor and interpersonal relationships. When Flores learned she would be placed at a middle school she began researching what’s typical developmentally for 11- to 14-year-olds.
“At this age they’re still developing impulse control, emotional control, they’re building on critical thinking skills. All of this is still developing, so the activities that I do with them keeps that in mind to help them understand that sometimes you’re going to be impulsive and that is okay, but what can we do to take steps so that you’re not as impulsive?”
Flores said one of her main goals is to provide a safe space for kids to trust and talk to her and ultimately any adult at the school. Simple punishment does not accomplish that goal, she said. She’s also helping the district implement restorative practices, which it has been doing through its Social, Emotional and Academic Development department.
Rhodes and SAISD are in good company, as school districts across the country are welcoming more empathetic practices in response to student behavior. Flores said every school doesn’t need a restorative justice specialist on campus to take advantage of the model’s benefits.
Restorative justice “provides a different perspective on how to handle problems,” she said. “It gives the students an opportunity to learn about themselves, and creates a space where they are able to be themselves, to be able to talk to an adult and learn how to communicate.”
Castro said a restorative justice approach in education is overdue.
“The reality is that for too long in the United States and San Antonio, specifically, we’ve lived in these cycles of poverty and oppression,” she said. “I think this is one way that we can begin to empower our kids, make right what has been wrong for too long, and to give opportunities to create space to imagine what is possible for themselves and their lives. I think it’s past time.”