Restorative justice could be considered a first cousin once removed of the modern-day interpretation of the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.
For restorative justice focuses on repairing harm that has been done – and preventing future harm.
A growing movement in both victimology and criminology, it acknowledges that crime causes injury to people and communities, and that involving both the offender and the victim in facilitated meetings can powerfully address not only the material and physical injuries caused by the crime, but the social and psychological injuries as well.
So, is this process for adults only? Absolutely not. In fact, variants of this process have been in play in Fairfax County schools for nearly a decade.
The focus, said Mary Ann Panarelli, director of intervention and prevention services for Fairfax County Public Schools, “is on harm vs. rule breaking. Rather than talking about ‘what rule did you break?’ – we look at who was harmed and what they need to make things right for them.”
By asking a set of restorative questions, the participants (offender(s), victim(s), facilitator, and sometimes parents) sit in a circle and examine what happened during the time the harm occurred – and the offenders in particular talk about what they were thinking, then.
“We try to look at little deeper into why the behaviors are happening,” she said, “and how the offenders harm themselves and their family with any kind of wrongdoing.”
It’s a voluntary process.
Vickie Shoap, the county schools’ restorative justice practices specialist, said this “is not a new trend or flavor of the month – it really is something that’s changing how we look at justice and discipline.” Currently, for instance, 48 states have this in their juvenile codes.
Panarelli noted that parents have contacted her and Shoap after a circle, saying: “My child didn’t realize they were really upsetting the victim to such a degree.” It is, she said, “a huge process of developing empathy.”
Three years ago, Fairfax County Public Schools conducted a pilot program in partnership with the Northern Virginia Mediation Services. The next year they developed a training plan for building a culture of restorative justice across the school system. These past two years have concentrated on middle and high schools, because that’s where the largest level of students are suspended and facing expulsion.
In addition to sharing information on the overall program, about 15 schools have allowed staff members to be trained as facilitators with some “lower level” type situations, such as students being disrespectful to each other or to a teacher. “We’re keeping a lot more information on what the schools are doing with this process,” said Panarelli, “and that’s helping us understand how it’s working.”
One benefit administrators have noted is long-term behavior change. With the traditional method, for example, merely suspending a student who was fighting never gets to the core of the conflict.
What they have implemented in the schools, therefore, uses the standard re-entry conference but with the restorative justice framework, so the offender’s thinking follows the process of “Here’s what I learned while I was away, and here’s how I’m going to come back to school and make things right.” As Panarelli said: “It gives the student an opportunity to close the circle” and start with a fresh slate.
“The kids can see how someone is harmed by their behaviors, and that face-to-face accountability really makes a difference,” said Shoap.
Always, there must be agreement in the circle before it ends. For example, students could agree to fixing school property or buying new glasses for a victim to replace those broken in a fight.
“When I was first introduced to the process,” said Mountainview High School Principal David Jagels, “it sounded hokey, like mediation, and I thought: ‘We’ve seen this before.’” But having watched it in action in his school, he’s changed his thinking.
“I can’t explain it, but there’s an energy that comes from the process that seems to work pretty well – kids seem to respect it.”
He now wants to build a culture where students use this approach not only to resolve an array of issues (such as bullying or two kids fighting) and working to prevent a second occurrence, but also to encourage students to talk about any number of things. That’s why Elizabeth, 17, who plans to graduate next February and become a teacher, recently participated in a circle with other students and elementary school counselors – where the students talked about what might have made a difference in their early experience in school.
“It was a different experience for me,” she said. “I had no idea what it would be walking in, sitting in an open circle, seeing each other.”
“As the more talkative kids opened up,” she added, “it gave [non-talkative ones] a safe feeling, that they could share, too. This process takes away the negative repercussions and allows students to really open up without fear.”
Said Jagels: “We’re trying to get to a restorative justice school. We hope to build a culture where students will refer to this process to solve their issues.”
“I like it because I think it solves the issue at hand. It allows people to sit down. It allows the students to understand the other’s vantage point … and get to the heart of the problem,” he said.