So, what happened?

Restorative Justice in theory

My school has been advocating Restorative Justice (RJ) as a central pillar of its discipline policy for four years now. Practically speaking this means I, along with other Year Level Coordinators, have been expected to put it into practice whenever there’s been a serious enough conflict requiring a formal resolution process to take place.

When we started, we were given a few days worth of Professional Development on the concept. This apparently qualified us as experts (I think I have a certificate for attendance somewhere actually). Qualified or not, we were considered expert enough to run a session on it for our staff a few weeks later. To be honest, I didn’t quite understand it fully at the time I ran that school session. That was four years ago.

I think I’m finally getting the hang of it now.

Without doubt, RJ is a sensible and effective way of approaching people who are in conflict. It aims to treat everyone with respect and promotes empathy for others so I’ve never met anyone who finds it a bad idea in principle. Nevertheless it is also susceptible to a wide range of misconceptions.

If you’re unfamiliar with Restorative Justice (RJ) you could check out a more official explanation than you will get from me at However, If you’re happy enough to run with my slightly alternative perspective on the process (that sadly wont come with a certificate of completion) read on.

Restorative Justice in practice

When I was first introduced to RJ I received a convenient 10-step checklist on a card. The idea was to have it on a lanyard around my neck at all times so I could refer to it in the heat of the moment. I think it’s best to start with that.

Let’s start by sticking that little card somewhere on your desk or wall or wherever you can look at it at your leisure because it’s not useful in the heat of the moment. What is useful in the heat of the moment is physical separation of those in conflict. Get those in conflict (‘stakeholders’ if you will) away from each other, let them cool down, and take time to get the process right.

Getting it right means making sure you nail step one of the ten on the card: ‘Establish what happened’. I’m not kidding here when I say that this constitutes 75% of the process. If the stakeholders are still steamed up, giving them an opportunity to write it all down – and it needs to be written not spoken – is a significant start. Their written version of events are guaranteed to be subjective and probably lacking lots of detail and none of that matters. The exercise has greater value as it gives aggrieved parties a chance to vent, calm down and represents tangible proof that they are being heard.

Once you have both (assuming it’s two) versions of events and everyone has a resting heart rate (usually this means a day or more has passed) it becomes a bit of a gumshoe detective routine. You need to speak with anyone and everyone who can give you some idea of what happened. Speak with the stakeholders separately and clarify their version of events. Let them know what details you need clarified because the other stakeholder has given conflicting information. Don’t bother with questions of who’s telling the truth, work on the assumption that you are getting their truth.

Step by step

At this point I should probably introduce step 2: ‘Establish what each person was thinking’. Once again, the rookie mistake is to ask this too soon and expect lucidity. I have never met anyone whose first three words to the question “What were you thinking?” weren’t “I don’t know.” What’s more, chances are they’re being honest when they say this. So, in dealing with this predictable hurdle to progress, it’s worth introducing the question during the gum-shoe phase and promote a little self reflection. It’s also useful, and not inappropriate, to prompt stakeholders with your best guess of what they were thinking. Generally, if your best guess suggests the stakeholder was wrapped up in their own world and they didn’t really consider how their actions would affect others, you will be right on the money. They can always refute it and clarify matters if you have it’s wrong.

Trust me though, that’s never wrong.

In my experience anyone who has been involved in an RJ process and felt it was ineffective, was probably rushed through that process. Here’s what I know for a fact. If a stakeholder still feels angry, then a meeting wont work. If either stake holder doesn’t trust you as the mediator, then the meeting wont work. But if everyone has had time to calm down, if everyone has seen you take them and their viewpoint seriously, if everyone feels informed of what to expect in the meeting so that they aren’t ambushed, then the time is right to bring them together for an effective RJ meeting.

Hopefully, all that preparation allows the meeting to run smoothly and fly through the 10 steps. To keep things on track I usually start the meetings by repeating in front of all stakeholders what I believe to be what happened and give them the chance to correct me (which they wont). Each stakeholder has the opportunity to explain how they felt about the event, how they were thinking at the time, and how they feel about it now (which they take and express well because they’ve had time to think clearly). Nothing should be forced or scripted and nothing should be a surprise.

The discussion can then move to who has been affected by the conflict and what consequences should take place so that everyone can get back to a workable relationship.

There you are! Easy right? Yup, it’s as easy as herding cats.

There’s a lot more I could add at this point but, for the sake of staying close to my 1000 word limit, I’ll leave it there. There’s certainly enough for another post some other time.

Lets just finish with this. Restorative Justice has a high degree of integrity if the process is thorough and not rushed. Even then there is no guarantee that a resolution can be reached.

But if you can get everyone to agree on what happened, you’ve rounded third base with a hope of stealing home.


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