Welcome to Restorative Justice

Al Jacobs

Several days ago an editorial in an Online site caught my attention. Its title: “Restorative justice offers hope at schools.” It describes a topic, restorative justice (RJ), of which I had no familiarity whatever. Its recent impetus: a “Dear Colleague” guidance letter, issued in 2014 through the U.S. Department of Education by the Obama administration, to prod schools to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions, particularly for those students who receive disciplinary actions at disproportionately high rates.

Though I read the full article – twice, in fact – I couldn’t quite grasp how or why what was being described might resolve school discipline problems in any meaningful way.

Stick with me as we evaluate RJ. A place to start will be the term’s definition:

Restorative Justice: A system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.

I’m immediately bothered to see a matter involving the schools mixed up with the subject of criminal justice, though I suppose an element of what goes on in the nation’s public school system relates to delinquency – a variety of criminality. It will also be helpful to know whether the concept, as applied in the schools, is something its advocates just invented, or if it’s actually been employed and tested for awhile. Though the modern usage of the term dates back to 1977, its application in the schools only became fashionable by 2006. This gives us just enough time to see how it functions and if it works.

First we’ll see how it functions. Consider this situation: In a boys’ restroom, a 150 lb. 7th grader knocks a 110 lb. 5th grader to the floor, grabs the lunch bag from his hand and walks out with it. Later in the day he’s confronted by school authorities. Above all, this won’t be considered a delinquency matter in which suspension or expulsion occurs, for to do so will stigmatize the accused. Instead, the concept of mediation will be used.

This provides for face-to-face dialogue between the person who committed the offense, the victim, and community members supporting the person who harmed the victim. The dialogue is directed so the victim identifies his needs and the offender accepts responsibility for his actions. RJ doesn’t attempt to alienate persons who commit crimes, but rather offers community support so to allow the aggressor to come to terms with the victim. And above all, the fundamental purpose of the process is to assist in the perpetrator’s rehabilitation.

As you see, RJ is not punitive. Rather, it’s a reconciliation process where the person causing harm must converse with the victim. The way the dialogue sessions actually occur is in a Talking Circle, which is the core component of the process. The parties will gather in an actual circle under the oversight of an experienced Circle Keeper, who it’s hoped will instill a feeling of trust.

An object of some sort will be designated as a talking piece and passed around to invite equal participation by all. Whoever then holds the talking piece is invited to speak, while all others are encouraged to listen to each speaker. In essence, this RJ program is designed to give each participant a voice and ensure they are listened to in a respectful way. When monitored by a trained specialist – particularly one with a Master’s, JD specialization, or Professional Certificate in RJ – the circles are intended to function with an absence of hostility.

We now know how the RJ process functions; our next inquiry is to see if it works. According to those professionally involved in administering the system, it shows great promise. The Centre for Justice & Reconciliation is internationally recognized as expert on the use of RJ. Its mission is to develop and promote the concept around the world. They maintain the current criminal justice system is financially and ethically untenable and that RJ is an important contemporary expression of timeless standards of justice.

As for its applicability in the schools, the International Institute for Restorative Practices reports the launching of its SaferSanerSchools Whole-School Change Program in more and more schools across the country and with it many positive results from its implementation. Their research graphs and fact sheet contend these outcomes include significant reductions in misbehavior and punitive discipline in grades K-12.

They also maintain there’s an improvement in teacher-student relationships as well a narrowing of the racial-discipline gap. In general, the organizations now administering the program see nothing but benefit from the RJ concept. You might note the nation’s second largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, just budgeted more than $10 million a year for the program, with a plan to place its practices in each of its more than 900 schools by 2020.

As you might expect, and despite the favorable reports from those establishing the parameters of RJ in the schools, the concept has not met with universal approval from the persons required to administer it on a day to day basis. In Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanual announced “moving away from a zero-tolerance policy to the promotion of restorative practices,” the Teachers Union complained the new program “left teachers struggling to control unruly kids.” One teacher told the Chicago Tribune “It’s just totally lawless.”

Meanwhile, in Syracuse, teachers complain “student behavior has worsened since the school district collapsed discipline structures in favor of the new leniency policies.” The say teens are more apt to fight, mouth off to teachers and roam the halls as they choose.

The Los Angeles schools are seeing a similar spike in campus offenses since the implementation of a policy to reduce suspensions. Even threats against teachers are ignored as administrators’ hands are tied by the new policy. In neighboring Orange County, teachers are dealing with increasingly violent student behavior, where they seem to have no recourse.

To the south, in San Diego, the public schools witnessed a surge in violent assaults just weeks after empowering teenagers. In one school, Lincoln High, school officials confirmed 16 batteries in the first few months of the school year. Meanwhile, defiance toward teachers is on the rise in Philadelphia public schools where talking circles replaced suspensions. A former Philly middle-school teacher reported “students act out and then dare teachers to do anything about it, knowing full well our hands are now tied.”

The sort of events just described are reported in virtually every community the new leniency policies are in effect: Oakland, Washington DC, New York, Portland, Santa Ana and elsewhere. A piercing analysis of the problem was described by Paul Bruno, a former middle school teacher in both Oakland and South Central Los Angeles, who said: “RJ can encourage misbehavior by lavishing attention on students for committing infractions. The circles may unwittingly allow already assertive students to leverage their social dominance even further in the classroom. All too often it merely provides an excuse for continued bad behavior.”

Some final thoughts: The term restorative relates to the word restore, meaning to bring back or put back into a former or original state. RJ must therefore presume each delinquent functioned normally at one time, and with encouragement will do so again. This ignores the fact many abnormal people were never normal, so there can be no restoration. The second matter to question is why the school hierarchy embraced RJ despite the deplorable results their teachers can verify.

Though it may upset you, there is in fact a very valid reason. The old disciplinary method involved suspensions and expulsions; RJ does not. Never ignore the fact the schools are funded through what’s known as Average Daily Attendance. Money isn’t received for a student not in the classroom. Given a choice, the school leaders are eager to opt for the money despite the disruption it causes.

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. You may view it on http://www.roadwaytoprosperity.com



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