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Restorative Justice in our Schools. Is it really just?

It appears that Restorative Justice or Restorative Practices are the new buzz words in our schools.

The concept itself isn’t new. A psychologist working with incarcerated people in the 1970s defined three approaches to justice. He had been providing distributive justice to people who had received retributive justice and saw a need for his clients to be accountable for their crimes in a more meaningful way – restorative justice.

In the early 2000s, the movement gained ground and is now practiced in various fields such as criminal justice, social work, counselling, management and education.

In schools, it is known as Restorative Practice, Reflective Practice or Positive Behaviours. It is the antithesis to corporal punishment and the zero tolerance policy and based on restitution with input from victims and offenders.

The rationale behind RP is admirable. Acknowledge the impact on the victim, accept responsibility for the behaviour and repair the harm done. The underlying philosophy is inclusivity, collectivity, respect, accountability and repairing relationships.

When it works, it is a transforming experience for all involved and when it doesn’t, it leaves both victim and offender in limbo at best, and at worst, it irretrievably breaks down that relationship.

What are the pros and cons of Restorative Practices and why the inconsistent results?

  • It focuses on behaviour and impact as opposed to the person and their character.
  • Teaches responsibility and accountability.
  • Teaches remorse and restitution.
  • Builds social skills and capacity.
  • Teaches effective communication.
  • Promotes trust.
  • Creates a safe learning environment and leads to more effective teaching.
  • There is community buy-in, thus developing a collaborative community.
  • Leads to less suspensions and expulsions.
  • There is a drop in juvenile crime and detention (although there is no consensus on this).
  • It is an over correction of zero tolerance, discipline and corporal punishment.
  • Teachers are blamed for not sufficiently engaging disruptive students.
  • Leads to dysfunctional classrooms and relations.
  • It is difficult to assess when the students feign remorse and ‘play’ the system.
  • Re-integrating into the community is not always an incentive as students prefer their own peer network.
  • Leads to a power imbalance.
  • Trivialises misbehaviour.
  • It does not address the fundamental inequalities that lead to the offending.

So why do some schools report positively and some negatively?

  • Some schools believe they can just ‘wing it’ and implement a fairly sparse policy. It soon becomes a reactive and constant response to most behaviour issues.
  • There is no consultation of depth with staff or the wider school community and thus no buy in. A lack of planning, with no thought to the logistics of the process leads to a lack of restorative culture in the school.
  • Training is often inadequate, lacks peer coaching, follow up and debrief. The usual 2-3 days of in house training is not enough.  A paradigm shift in thinking and practice requires ongoing training and analysis.
  • There is no framework of support for teachers.
  • There is a lack of vision, which needs to be developed with staff, students and parents. “When it comes to behaviour management, what kind of school do we wish to be and how do we create it?”  Very often, the school makes the decision to implement RP and the staff and community are simply notified.  As teachers are the frontline responders to misbehaviour, it is vitally important to have teachers involved from the outset, otherwise this simply leads to a divided and disgruntled staff.
  • Lack of investment in time and money.

If you find yourself being asked to attend a Restorative meeting with a student (or even staff member) the 2 key questions to ask are:
      Have you been consulted as to whether you wish to participate and what this will look like?
Do you feel safe?

If the answer to the either or both of the questions is ‘no’, call the IEU for advice and assistance on how to move forward.