Last week I touched on an aspect of Restorative Justice (RJ) that I find to be a part of my every day working life. I guess it’s all a bit on the dry side for most of you but I couldn’t help playing around with the concept here just a little bit more. After this I’ll stop. Promise.
Crime and Punishment
Restorative Justice (sometimes called Restorative Practice) came out of the prison system. It is an extraordinarily powerful process that brings the criminals into the same room as the victims. This only happens when all involved are prepared to face each other and make two vital commitments. They must all speak openly and unreservedly about their experience, their thinking, and their feelings. They must also listen to everyone else’s.
I’ve seen footage of the process in action where a murder was committed. The meeting brought together everyone involved. The stakeholders. The victim’s family and loved ones. The convicted murderers and their loved ones. Even the people who were there at the time or whose job it was to deal with the scene. It is not an easy thing to sit through and watch. Not because of any antagonism or conflict. Quite the opposite in fact. Every one speaks with polite sincerity. The flawed thinking process of the perpetrators is owned up to and (at least) comprehended by everyone in the meeting. The pain and loss felt by the loved ones is expressed. The complex mix of emotions of everyone else is exposed too. Emotions borne out of guilt, helplessness, loss.
Before they were led away in chains, the criminals said they were sorry. The members of the victim’s family may or may not have accepted this but they certainly all believed it to be authentic. Afterwards, there were some of the victim’s group who felt the need to hug the mother of one of the killers. Realistically, this is all the process could ever achieve. The victim is not coming back, the criminals are not being released and everyone has to live with that.
I don’t want to diminish what happened there though. The process encouraged empathy and catharsis and this is no small thing. In fact, this is precisely why the concept has massive implications for education.
The double-edged sword
As I say, this video footage was shown at a seminar introducing the RJ principles to teachers. I suspect it was shown to give an indication of how powerfully effective it can be in even this most extreme of scenarios. Well I have no arguments on that front but I have found over the years that the concept as it applies to school is too often muddled up with standing discipline policies and I think this video may be part of the problem. Not because the example is extreme, it’s because the process was.
What was presented was the most formal of meetings and the groundwork involved in preparing it was incredibly thorough. Such restorative meetings are necessary in schools but they are infrequent. I can only think of one situation in the last five years where I’ve run a meeting with this degree of ceremony and I’d understand it if other teachers felt ill prepared to run something like it. It was well worth the effort but it was a lot of effort. Perhaps a better example to present to future RJ practitioners would be scenarios showing a spat between two students, or an act of disrespect towards a teacher, or foolishness in the yard. In the day-to-day operation of a school these things are fairly common and the formal RJ process is too laborious and probably an overreaction.
You’ve probably guessed where I’m going with this. The processes as mapped out by a school’s discipline policy are designed and developed for everyday eventualities and, without knowing what every school does in every situation, I feel confident enough to suggest this is what teachers should turn to. The important thing is that the discipline policy is used by staff with a mindset attuned to RJ principles.
High Support High Control
So a student has behaved inappropriately. Let’s say they have been uncooperative in class and the teacher has found it necessary to send them out of the room. The specifics aren’t really important here. In fact, the school’s specific consequences aren’t really important here either. What’s important here is that the consequences (whatever they are) are taken into account after a discussion has taken place first.
That discussion needs to revolve around some of the things I wrote last week. Once cool heads have prevailed, everyone involved must be given their opportunity to voice what they think happened, what they were thinking at the time, and what they’ve thought of the whole thing since.
Now we have a chance to exercise a little empathy. Can the student appreciate that their actions, regardless of justifications, were unacceptable in a class trying to learn? Probably. Can the staff member see where the student’s behaviour is coming from? Probably. Can everyone see that the school rules need to be followed here and that there are no (or some) mitigating factors that should be considered? Probably.
Going about applying the school rules this way means that the control that the school demands is tempered with support that those involve need. It’s not a flawless system but it has a far better chance of restoring a working relationship than simply slapping a student with a punishment straight away.
Once again, my word limit is fast approaching so I need to wrap this up quickly. In essence there are three key ideas I wanted to express here. First, that RJ is a highly meritorious initiative that didn’t come from the education sector but is relevant to education. Second is that there is a lot of potential confusion and complexity to RJ as it can be used in all manner of situations big and small, formal and informal. Finally, and most importantly, I really hope people can come to see the concept is one that informs the welfare and discipline policy of schools, rather than something that replaces them.
For more information on this stuff here’s a good place to start.