The diversity of approaches being used to implement restorative practices was at the heart of the second day of the 13th IIRP (International Institute of Restorative Practices) World Conference in Hull, U.K. While punitive justice takes a one-size-fits all approach to conflict and crime, namely punishment, restorative justice comes in many forms.
Restorative justice seeks to restore balance after the harm has occurred. While the "justice" in the punitive system is found in the requirement that the harm done to the offender be proportional to the harm caused, in the RJ system, justice lies in the respect, transparency, honesty and equity that are extended to everyone involved.
The RJ process is tailored the circumstances, the time and place, and the community culture and traditions of the people involved. I spent the day attending workshops about the diverse ways in which RJ is being implemented in the school setting.
Ten years ago, Finland began training students to act as peer mediators. Students working in teams of two, along with an adult supervisor, have been trained to mediate student infractions. For a school of 200 to 400 students, the Finns train 20 peer mediations (10 pairs) and 5 adults to facilitate the mediations. This approach has been used in 380 schools, 20,000 students have solved their conflicts and 9000 cases were mediated in 2009 alone. All but about 5% of the cases are resolved using student peer mediation. (I also learned that Finland only has three youth under 18 in prison.)
A different approach was described by a restorative justice consultant from Holland. He begins by offering the restorative process to the school administration, teachers and staff as a means of addressing their workplace conflicts. After the adults running the school gain some experience using RJ to work out their differences, he asks them if they would like to also use RJ to resolve disputes that involve the students. The benefit of this is that the adults understand the RJ process well before its use is extended to the students, which helps to insure buy in from the top.
Nova Scotia, in contrast, is taking a systems approach to the introduction of restorative justice in its schools. They seek the support and involvement of all of the agencies that come into contact with the students, such as the police, social services, juvenile courts and the students' families. By weaving the various service providers into a restorative justice network, Nova Scotia's students experience uniformity in the way conflict and misconduct are handled. One drawback that was mentioned was that of determining which agency is ultimately responsible for the network.
Perhaps the narrowest approach is to simply bring in a restorative justice facilitator to address incidents as they arise. This requires the least investment, but it lacks many of the benefits, including the opportunities for student leadership, that come from involving the students in resolving their own conflicts.
A concern shared by many is how to sustain the restorative processes when turnover in school staff occurs. Countries that have made a commitment to implementing RJ nationwide do not face this problem, but in the U.S. where no such commitment exists, we do.
West Philadelphia High School, for example, had an RJ program that was credited with turning a school plagued with violence into a relatively safe environment. Critical staff members were recently assigned to different schools. The RJ program is expected to fail and the unsafe conditions to return.
Introducing restorative practices in our schools represents a new way of thinking about the school environment we want students to experience. The tools we have used in the past, such as zero tolerance, school suspensions, authoritarian class management, and even arrests for certain infractions, have serious limitations. Instead of building relationships with the students who experience them, they harm those relationships. Instead of making these kids feel a part of the school community, they made them feel alienated and isolated.
Many alternatives are available. For those who would like more information, detailed information about the Nova Scotia program is available online, including a variety of forms and documents they have developed.
Also posted on GenuineJustice.com.