Restorative Justice in Schools Can Offer Teachable Moments
In most of the US before the 1970s, it was a common practice to punish students who misbehaved or underperformed with a spanking, a whack with a wooden ruler or paddle, and for repeat offenders, public scolding, detention, suspension, and expulsion. Other punitive measures — retributive justice based on forms of punishment such as close encounters with the criminal justice system — became more common, and in most cases, didn’t resolve many issues. Not for the victims. Not for the offenders. And certainly not for the system. Recidivism became more commonplace. A school-to-prison pipeline ossified.
In the subsequent decades, systems of distributive justice involving “treatment” of offenders became more established as more state departments of education reassessed their corrective practices. By 2000, 28 states abolished corporal punishment, but many parents considered that the pendulum swung too far in the other direction when school-based offenses were punished “too leniently” and offending students didn’t “learn their lesson.” As a result, the school-to-prison pipeline became more entrenched than ever.
A third way is taking hold: Restorative Justice. The term refers to the approach in which the victim, offender, and other people affected by the incident (i.e., bystanders) get involved in the resolution with the help of a facilitator. Forms of restorative justice — albeit with a different name — have been used successfully in Africa, the Americas, with the Maori of New Zealand.
Within our schools, restorative justice is becoming a positive alternative to punitive measures typically implemented for inappropriate behavior or conduct, offering teachable moments to students. The National Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) offers programs aligned with grade specific learning objectives promoting character development through a social-learning curriculum. The goal of restorative justice is to repair students’ standing in the community so they can move forward with their peers.
According to former Navajo Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Yazzie, restorative justice is embedded in the concepts of Diné culture. He states, “Navajo justice is a sophisticated system of egalitarian relationships where group solidarity takes the place of force and correction. In it, humans are not in ranks or status classifications from top to bottom. Instead, all humans are equals and make decisions as a group. There is no precise term for ‘guilty’ in the Navajo language. The word guilt implies a moral fault that commands retribution. It is a nonsense word in Navajo law due to the focus on healing, integration with the group, and the end goal of nourishing ongoing relationships with the immediate and extended family, relatives, neighbors, and community.” In this light, Diné justice prevails as the goal is to negotiate a resolution to the satisfaction of all participants.
A restorative justice session could take place as conversations with as few as three participants: the offender, the victim, and the facilitator. But it also takes place with larger groups, including people who didn’t join directly in the dispute.
Jennifer Gonzalez, a former teacher and at present, the editor-in-chief of the website Cult-of-Pedagogy, reinforces the importance of a circular approach in restorative justice both in its concepts and its members. “Pulling groups of people together into circles for conversations is one of the most recognizable features of schools that have adopted restorative practices. The circles can take many forms; meditation circles when a problem needs to be addressed, healing circles when group members are hurting or grieving, or circles that form just for dialogue and storytelling. When circles are a regular part of the school culture, they give students a vehicle for communicating when problems arise, rather than handling them in less constructive ways.”
There are several conditions for restorative justice sessions to meet success in the school setting. Each stakeholder —victim, offender, witnesses and other bystanders, classmates, and educators — must not feel oppressed to communicate, or feel threatened in any way; all participants must be willing to listen and talk calmly; a program must take into consideration the needs and empowerment of each stakeholder in the affected communities; and processes must never impose punishments that exceed the maximum punishment that is stated in its school policies.
In certain egregious instances, suspensions and expulsions are needed. But alternative solutions to suspensions and expulsions are crucial because students often make poor decisions and their social judgment is not sound. After all, students are children, and educational institutions need to embrace these situations as teachable moments, not punitive ones.
Although restorative justice has its roots in the criminal justice system, it goes far beyond dealing with offenders and the mainstream society. The punitive approach does not repair the harm that was done. By removing the punitive component from the offense and emphasizing restorative options, “the debt that is owed to society, and the individual harmed is repaid,” according to Gonzalez. In essence, this is how restorative justice in schools can offer teachable moments. #