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Is Restorative Justice Exhausting?

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There has long been a perception that restorative practices--a term used to describe a variety of different approaches to "doing justice" and working through conflict that focus on repairing harm and addressing underlying needs rather than identifying and punishing the "wrongdoer"--are time consuming and exhausting. No doubt that narrative was further reinforced by the New York Times Sept. 11th online story on restorative justice in city high schools (the print version appears in today's Sunday magazine).

But is it true? Is exhaustion really a necessary "side-effect" of responding restoratively, rather than punitively, to school conflicts and harms?

I don't want to minimize the reality that walking toward conflict restoratively takes time and energy (it definitely does!) but time and energy expenditure do not necessarily result in exhaustion. Sometimes they can invigorate, not drain, and I have seen many school personnel feel energized by the shift to restorative practices.

In fact, there are at least five reasons to believe restorative practices are probably much LESS tiring than Zero Tolerance policies or even just conventional punitive discipline.

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1. It's the suppression of conflicts that's tiring, not the conflicts

Many of the teachers in Leadership High School were hesitant to engage in what they perceived to be risky and vulnerable dialogue about race and racism. This is hardly surprising. We're socialized to believe that conflict (especially racial conflict) is dangerous, something to avoid or smooth over or "keep under a lid" some other way. But putting a lid on conflict is not unlike putting a lid on a full pot. Eventually, the pressure builds up and then things get REALLY messy. Cleaning up a big mess is indeed tiring, but it's not the conflict that is dangerous and messy; it's the suppression of conflict. Most conflicts start small and only build up if they are not addressed. Working through those small conflicts is like wiping a small spill with a good paper towel--far from dangerous and hardly exhausting.

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In many (probably most!) schools and workplaces, racial tension and resentment have been building for years. As a result, creating a container to talk about the things we usually "reveal only to ourselves, and that in secret," does indeed take both time and emotional vulnerability. But even then, the exhaustion seems more the byproduct of anxious anticipation than actual engagement. The Times reported that those involved in the race circles at Leadership experienced more authentic connection with their colleagues. That's not draining. It's what we all wish we could have.

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2. It's the acts of harm, not the restorative responses

Anyone who has been in a school in February can see that the teachers and staff are tired. In restorative schools, it might be tempting to conclude that the fatigue is due to the demands of engaging in restorative practices. I doubt it. Teachers in schools that are still doing punitive discipline are exhausted this time of year too, particularly in schools where violence and others acts of harm are frequent and unabating. It's not the restorative responses to such acts that are tiring; It's the conflicts and acts of harm themselves. In extreme circumstances (some schools qualify), just being around chronic violence can be diagnostically traumatic, as evidenced by PTSD symptoms. In circumstances less extreme, it is merely exhausting. Of course, school personnel are often tired but let's not confuse the cause with the response.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)
 

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