Written by: Mr. Asa Church
Pause and think about the U.S. judicial system. Are there any ways in which it could be improved? You can probably think of at least a few. And you’re not alone. Proponents of Restorative Justice have been exploring alternative ways to approach crime and punishment for some time now. Inspired by the community based justice systems of indigenous peoples in Canada and New Zealand, restorative justice advocates have formulated and put into practice a roadmap for addressing harm that meets many of the failings of traditional systems. More recently, practitioners have begun to explore how Restorative Justice can be applied to schools as they address the social and emotional health of their students.
This fall I began graduate work at Eastern Mennonite University in the area of Restorative Justices for Schools. Through YCDS’ commitment to professional development and the generosity of the Parents Association, I’ve been able to begin envisioning how Restorative Justice can complement our current approach to social and emotional learning. But what is Restorative Justice and how does it apply to a school like YCDS?
A holistic and needs based approach to justice is attractive in that it seems potentially more adept at reaching true resolution and rehabilitation. All the more so in an educational setting where creating a supportive and nurturing environment is crucial. At the same time, restorative justice has often been accused of being “soft” or mere “talk therapy.” On the contrary, in the words of Howard Zehr, “Restorative justice is a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.” This means that “restorative disciplines does not seek to deny consequences for misbehavior,” writes Lorraine Amstutz and Judy Mullet, in their book Restorative Discipline for Schools. Amstutz and Mullet are a part of movement that is increasingly applying the principles of restorative justice to discipline practices in schools. They write, “Instead, [restorative discipline] focuses on helping students understand the real harm done by their misbehavior, to take responsibility for the misbehavior, and to commit to positive change.”
To get a better sense of the difference between traditional and restorative justice, examine this chart, reproduced from The Little Book of Restorative Justice, an introductory text by leading expert Howard Zehr.As highlighted by the Atlantic article “When Restorative Justice in Schools Work,” published in the December 2015, schools across the United States are becoming more and more receptive to the use of restorative justice as an alternative to traditional responses to behavior. As strong as the desire to swiftly “do something” about behavior, this “tough-on-crime” approach tends toward using shame as a weapon and ignores the underlying causes of the behavior. In a partnership between Harrisonburg (VA) City Schools, James Madison University, and Eastern Mennonite University, teachers and staff are being trained in Restorative Justice and implementing it in their schools. This type of program shows additional promise in terms of reducing lengthy and unnecessary suspensions where students lose out on valuable instruction. Under the direction of Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City is putting significant resources behind the expansion of restorative justice programs and practices in its schools.
These programs aren’t without critics and as with any well-intentioned change, proper and full implementation is essential. Restorative justice takes time, resources, and commitment. It may not be appropriate in all contexts and it relies heavily on the willing participation of all involved. But in a school like YCDS where significant commitment to relationships and community already exist, Restorative Justice offers a powerful tool that can strengthen our commitment to the whole child.