Restorative Justice

Restorative justice (RJ) is “a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior.” [RestorativeJustice.org] This includes the rehabilitation of the perpetrator and reconciliation between the victim/community and the offender. Restorative justice measures can be used to resolve conflicts and strengthen communities. RJ practices have been used in some cultures for generations and perhaps most notably was used in South Africa to resolve and heal from many of the human rights atrocities that occurred during Apartheid. 

When used in schools, RJ responses classify misbehaviors as “harms done to a community” and focuses on conflict resolution. This approach can be used as an alternative or supportive means to address harms and reduce expulsions and suspensions in a school. Another benefit of using RJ practices in schools is that it creates a community in which students learn to take responsibility for their actions as well as openly share their experiences. By doing this, students can strengthen skills in empathy and listening as well as form bonds within their school community.

At Learning Courage, we recognize the power and potential of restorative justice in the cases of sexual misconduct or abuse because it can be an opportunity for survivors and communities to heal after an incident.  And we know that RJ practices have been used effectively in certain situations. It is important to note, however, that certain basic principles and guidelines need to be in place before restorative justice can be used. See “When are restorative justice measures appropriate for sexual misconduct or abuse?”

How does restorative justice work?

Restorative justice is a type of criminal justice system in which community safety and accountability are prioritized. This system requires offenders to take accountability for their actions and commit to corrective actions. The process includes a facilitated dialogue between the offender and the victim/community designed to recognize harm and establish accountability, provide a way to apologize, and to ask for forgiveness for the harm caused. The objective is to create awareness, to stimulate empathy by allowing the perpetrator to recognize the harm they have done, and to support healing and empowerment for the harmed parties. Restorative justice measures can be used for current or historical crimes. It does not have to entail forgiveness towards the offender - rather it facilitates a discussion meant to empower the survivor and allow for healing in the community. 

“What’s fundamental about restorative justice (practices) is a shift away from thinking about laws being broken, who broke the law, and how we punish the people who broke the laws. There’s a shift to: there was harm caused, or there’s disagreement or dispute, there’s conflict, and how do we repair the harm, address the conflict, meet the needs, so that relationships and community can be repaired and restored. It’s a different orientation. It is a shift.” 

Cheryl Graves-Community Justice for Youth Institute

How restorative justice has been used for truth and reconciliation

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one striking example of how restorative justice can be used to address harms caused in a community. This commission used restorative justice measures to address the human rights abuses committed during the Apartheid. Victims were invited to speak about their experiences and the human rights abuses they faced. People responsible for harm spoke about the harms they committed and could request amnesty. [source] This allowed the nation to create a record of its Apartheid history, providing validation to victims and their families. Although this commission was only the start of South Africa’s reconciliation process, it still serves as a standard for how institutions can begin to repair harms in a community.

Restorative Justice Results in Schools

The Oakland Unified district, with its own widespread use of RJ, presented a report to the U.S Department of Education where they found that 88% of teachers reported restorative justice practices to be helpful in managing student behaviors in the classroom. The district also found that suspensions declined significantly, especially in the case of, “students suspended for disruption/willful defiance, down from 1,050 to 630, a decrease of 40% or 420 fewer suspensions in only one year.”[source] They found that schools employing restorative justice measures had an increase of 60% in four-year graduation rates, compared to a 7% increase for non-restorative justice schools. Today, the Oakland Unified school district has a restorative justice initiative that involves training and support for 40 restorative justice sites in the district. 

In 2014, the San Diego Unified school district created a restorative justice district, training over 1,000 district staff in restorative justice practices. In 2017, they established a restorative justice department. They contract with the National Conflict Resolution Center for training and support. After only a year, the district reported a 60% decrease in expulsions as well as a reduction in drug-related calls.

Restorative Justice and Title IX

The Department of Education Title IX Final Rule allows for “informal resolutions” to be used in the cases of Title IX violations. This excludes cases where there is a power differential, such as a member of the faculty sexually harassing a student. After an incident of sexual misconduct or abuse, the survivor meets with the Title IX coordinator to discuss their options. “This includes the option to pursue a claim on-campus or criminally, to drop the complaint, or to request a restorative justice resolution.”[source] See Learning Courage’s section on “Title IX Information” for more information.

How can restorative justice be implemented in classrooms?

Restorative justice measures can be used in schools to facilitate a positive school climate as well as support student success. Building a community on the principles of restorative justice involves the use of community building circles, or dialogue circles. These circles are designed to help build a community together, allow members to share their thoughts, and commit to shared values and guidelines. These circles also allow members to learn to communicate respectfully with one another and voice honest feedback to facilitate healing. The topics of these discussions can include, but are not limited to, discussions about bullying, hazing, or other harms done to the community. Circles can be used on a regular basis as “check-ins” as well as for celebratory or grieving processes. Implementing these RJ practices can allow your school to create a community based on empathy and communication, allowing your students to better succeed in a positive school climate.

Here’s an example of how one school found success: Using Dialogue Circles to Support Classroom Management 

When are restorative justice measures appropriate for sexual misconduct or abuse?

Restorative justice measures can allow a survivor to reclaim power in their healing process. However, these measures are not always the right approach. On some campuses, repeat offenders are not allowed to participate in restorative justice measures. These measures should only be put into place with the consent of a survivor as well as the consent of the offender. Restorative justice measures rely on four principles:

  1. The measures must ensure a space for inclusive decision-making. The survivor, offender, and community members must be given a voice to express the harms that have been done and share their experiences. 
  2. The offender must be willing to accept responsibility for the harms their actions caused.
  3. The offender must take action to repair the harm that they are responsible for.
  4. The offender must take responsibility for rebuilding trust.

A trained facilitator, who may determine if restorative justice measures are appropriate, is needed for these measures. Restorative justice measures can also be used in classrooms to address the harm that has been done to the community.

Survivors of sexual abuse may pursue restorative justice for some of the following reasons: [source]

  • “The offender took away my control and I want a chance to get it back.”
  • “I have questions which only the offender can answer.’’
  • “I want the offender to know how their actions have affected me.’’
  • “I feel as if I’m not moving on from what happened to me.’’

How can restorative justice measures be implemented to address sexual misconduct or abuse?

Additional measures are put in place to address sexual misconduct or abuse. In these cases, a subsection of the harmed population participates. These discussions include reviewing the harm that took place as well as how further harm can be avoided. 

Typically, for using restorative justice in the case of sexual misconduct or abuse, there are three phases. 

  1. In the first phase, the person responsible for the harm and the survivor meet separately with a facilitator. The survivor may write their story in their own words for the person responsible for harm to read. 
  2. In the second phase, the person responsible for the harm and the survivor will meet with a RJ coordinator present. Other supporting members of the survivor and person responsible for harm may also be present in these discussions. These discussions are meant to facilitate a dialogue about the incident and the harms that were caused as well as what can be done to avoid future harms. Restorative justice measures are not meant to excuse the behavior of the person responsible for harm, but rather allow for an explanation and path towards healing. The offender commits to corrective actions. These measures are intended to empower survivors as well as allow the person responsible for harm to have an opportunity to take responsibility for their actions.
  3. In the third phase, the facilitator checks in with the person responsible for the harm and the survivor to ensure that any promises made are fulfilled.

It is important to note that restorative justice measures do not advocate that the offender go unpunished but rather that a meaningful discussion takes place so that measures to avoid future harm can be undertaken. It is important to note, using RJ is a separate process from investigations and any consequences that come from findings and should not be viewed as a replacement for them.  

How can your school begin implementing restorative justice practices?

Your school can work to implement restorative justice measures by forming a restorative justice team. This team can consist of 4-6 individuals, including a restorative justice facilitator who must be trained in RJ facilitation. Other individuals on the restorative justice team can include clinicians, counselors, teachers, and administrators. [source] Those trained can also lead training and other school-wide initiatives to implement restorative justice measures. Teachers can be trained to implement tier 1 of restorative justice practices which involves the use of dialogue circles in classrooms as well as trained to address students’ misbehaviors and concerns using restorative justice measures.

When searching for a restorative justice facilitator, consider candidates who have:

  • Demonstrated success working in a school setting 
  • Experience with restorative justice and trauma-informed practices, including the use of community building circles

Alternatively, if your school has decided to instead train current faculty in restorative justice practices, Learning Courage is happy to share vetted resources with member schools.  

Below is a diagram that gives you some insight into how Restorative Justice can be used in schools. It outlines who is involved and what kinds of situations these groups respond to best. 

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