Amidst the unending education wars, a quiet revolution is taking place in many school systems regarding their approach to discipline and student misconduct. Schools are moving away from suspension and other punitive approaches to the implementation of restorative practices, a focus on the harm that was done and how to put it right.
For schools, it is an adaptation of practices better known as restorative justice that grew out of traditional cultural approaches to deal with offenders of societal mores. In Western culture, the approach is associated with alternatives to our criminal justice system. Restorative Justice is the usual term, but for schools to truly reduce misconduct, they need to move away from a conception of justice to a vision of practice because misconduct ranges along a wide spectrum of minor disputes and classroom disruption to more serious conflicts of bullying and fighting, which do not cross the line of criminal conduct, to actual criminal conduct such as drug-selling, theft, and inflicting serious bodily harm.
At my school, I lead the committee that is working on designing and implementing restorative practices to address our issues. Thus I am reading widely and deeply about restorative practices.
At the heart of it all is a recognition that we form a community in which all members have connections with one another. Our students form a part of that community. They are us and we are them.
If it seems silly that I am saying that, you don’t realize the adversarial stance into which adults fall. The efforts some teachers go to catch students in some misconduct and then going all out to make sure punishment takes place. I’m not calling them out, but that is the traditional Western concept of justice: punish the offense severely enough that the student will conclude it is better to comply.
Western justice is rooted in behaviorism. If the pain is great enough, the offender will change the behavior.
That is why you will hear a lot of muttering in the teacher lounge about their referrals that have been dismissed or that the administrator chose a student conference as the consequence (the administrator met with the student and they talked about why the behavior was wrong.)
Restorative practices do not focus on punishment. The focus is on the harm that was done and most especially, the direct harm experienced by the victim. As we seek to translate that into the school, we must keep in mind the interconnectedness of the community because many instances of student misconduct do not have a direct victim, but do harm the community. In some cases, the offender and the victim are one and the same, for example, cheating.
As the journey at my school gets underway, I want to share the basic principles as espoused by Howard Zehr in his book, The Little Book of Restorative Justice.
One: The focus is not on the violation of a code of conduct, but on the harm that was done. The first and primary focus is on the harm experienced by the victim, but there is also the harm to the community and possibly also harm that has been experienced by the offender that led to the offense.
Two: The needs of the victim are addressed in the process. Primary among these are the needs for the offender to admit responsibility and accountability. However, this principle also acknowledges that the community and offender may also have needs that need to be addressed.
Three: The outcome must focus on putting things right. This may include an apology, an acknowledgment to the victim of the harm done, restitution, and consequences depending on the severity of the offense. The emphasis is getting all persons involved to agree on what it will take: victim, offender, community.
Sometimes putting things right means that past wrongs or trauma must also be addressed by the community and supports put into place that will support offenders into changing their behavior.