Social and Restorative Justice: A Moral Imperative for Educational Leaders
In 1994, Herman Bianchi suggested that education scholars were so connected to the retributive model of criminal justice for school students they were unable to accept the effectiveness of other models in other times and places. Five years later, Jon Braithwaite (1999) argued that through the history of the world, restorative justice had been the dominant model of criminal justice, and as such, a move toward a restorative justice model was a return to our roots and not the latest attempt to solve our ailing justice system. Other research (Llewellyn and Howse 1999) argued that restorative justice is not a new idea, but a prominent concept of justice visible throughout most of human history and often used interchangeably as “restorative processes” including restorative discipline, restorative practices, and restorative values.
Brief History of Administration of Justice
Prior to our modern system of State-centered public justice, the administration of justice was not simply about applying rules. Instead, it was a mediating and negotiating process known as community justice. Community justice grew out of the need for communities to resolve disputes, reconcile harm, and maintain relationships. The use of retributive justice, or forced resolution, was seen as a last resort. As governments grew, they began the process of replacing community justice with courts. Courts established rule of law and applied the rules, established guilt, and set penalties. Victims, offenders, and the community lost control of disputes; instead, punishment served the interest of the State while doing nothing to address the harm caused by the wrongdoing (Llewellyn and Howse 1999).
The retributive approach to justice is the philosophy that has underlined our Western systems of criminal justice that relies on third-party sanctions and punishment to address societal wrongs (Schweigert 1999). This model measures wrongdoing through a system of rules associated with particular consequences, establishes the wrongs committed, and assigns guilt. The traditional retributive model has the offender as the focus and does not consider the needs of the victim or the community. In addition, it does not take into consideration the view of offender as a victim or the stigma that comes with labeling a person as a criminal (Calhoun and Pelech 2010). Today, the United States juvenile justice system is burdened by the cost of high rates of incarceration and the maintenance of the world’s largest jails and prison system. In addition, there is the stigmatization and marginalization of those in juvenile courts which limits their opportunities once back into their communities. As a response to these issues, and a growing emphasis on human rights, restorative justice and practices have begun “to move away from a retributive justice approach in order to focus on ‘putting things right’ between all those involved or affected by wrong-doing and achieves this by shifting the focus from individuals to whole communities” (Wearmouth et al. 2007, p. 196). It has since found its way to the corridors of schools and communities. Restorative practices in the form of highly structured processes of victim-offender conferencing are being, or have already been, developed in a number of areas around the world including North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand (see Schweigert 1999).
The Rise of Restorative Justice: An Education Context
Two peoples have made very specific and profound contributions to practices in the field of restorative justice – the First Nations people of Canada and the United States and the Maori of New Zealand. By the second half of the 1990s, “the expression “restorative justice” had become popular and attracted many segments of society, including schoolteachers, principals, politicians, juvenile justice agencies, police, judges, victim support groups, aboriginal elders, and parents” (Johnstone and Van Ness 2007, p. 77). Although the origins of restorative justice are widely contested and varying definitions continue to unfold, many education scholars agree that the inherent failings of school discipline and the implementation of zero-tolerance policies have created an impetus for alternative models to be devised.
Recent developments in education throughout the world have highlighted how important it has become for educational leaders (e.g., school administrators and teachers) to focus on an inclusive approach to leading, teaching, and learning (Wearmouth et al. 2007). These educational leaders and other educators are now required to deal with greater understanding of human rights issues including cultural, physical, and intellectual diversity in schools. A factor that is often missing from much of the debate around inclusion is an understanding that within any institution, educators and students’ relationships are defined by that institution’s social practices. Research has clearly asserted that difficulties in learning and behavior in schools are highly contextual in nature (Wearmouth et al. 2007) – that young people’s thinking and behavior are shaped by the social contexts in which they live and learn (Bruner 1996). Essentially, there is an understanding that family and culture are highly influential in shaping the thinking and behavior of young people in schools.
The principal aim of restorative processes in schools is to repair the harm that has been caused by the incident through the active involvement of all stakeholders – victims, offenders, and their supporters or community representatives (where they want this) – in discussing what happened and deciding on the appropriate outcomes (Sumner et al. 2010). Given the range of due process concerns that arise from such interaction, most restorative justice practices that are used within the school and community settings require the offender – oftentimes the “at-promise” student – first to admit responsibility for the offense and for both the victim and the offender to consent to their involvement in the process. It is thought that through such a process, stakeholders will subsequently have a deeper understanding of the circumstances and consequences of the offense; that all participants will have agreed and contributed to the drafting of a behavioral or task-oriented contract to which the offender has to adhere; and that all participants will experience a sense of procedural justice.
Beyond the significant shift required of the schools and community effectively to curb violence and achieve justice within a restorative response is the impact this has for altering the leadership role at the school level and throughout the community. Social and restorative justice leaders engage with the communities. In the best interest of students (Stefkovich and Begley 2007), they feel a moral imperative to work with those they serve including students, teachers, families, partners, and other entities in the communities to understand the problem and then to seek positive solutions to those problems as a whole community.
Restorative justice models are increasingly advocated by educators who regularly work with student suspensions and expulsions and considered as the preferred alternative to retributive justice (Johnstone and Van Ness 2007). It is a process in which parties involved in a specific offense work collectively to find resolution. A wider more comprehensive definition is provided by Gilbert and Settles (2007) who state crime is viewed “as a harm to individuals, their neighborhoods, the surrounding community and even the offender. Crimes produce injuries that must be repaired by those who caused the injury” (p. 6) and that “crimes are more than violations of law, and justice is more than punishment of the guilty.” They further posit that restorative justice “strives to promote healing through structured communication processes among victims, offenders, community representatives and government officals… to accomplish these goals in a manner that promotes peace and order for the community, vindication for the victim, and recompense for the offender” (p. 7).
Involves all parties with a stake in the resolution of the conflict, the victim, perpetrator, and the community.
Recognizes and seeks to address the harms to one another, remembering that harm is not restricted to the victim but can be expressed by the offender and the community.
Is voluntary. Participation cannot be the result of coercion, fear, threats, or manipulation brought to bear on either the victim or the offender.
Is premised on and include truth telling in the form of an admission of responsibility for what happened on the part of the perpetrator. This is a precondition for a restorative process.
Involves encounter, a face-to-face sharing of stories and experiences between victim-offender and community.
Protects the rights of victims and offenders.
Involves a facilitator who can ensure the need of a broader social perspective.
Aims for reintegration of the victim and offender into the community.
Develops a plan for the future or agreement for resolution out of negotiation.
Does not involve punishment.
Is evaluated by its results, whether it restores or not (Llewellyn and Howse 1999, p. 73).
Social Justice and Restorative Justice
The term social justice is evoked daily in literature and the news media; however, it can be difficult to define. According to Murrell (2006), “social justice involves a disposition toward recognizing and eradicating all forms of oppression and differential treatment extant in the practices and policies of institutions, as well as a fealty to participatory democracy as a means of this action” (p. 81). Narrowing the definition of social justice from the world stage, to the classroom, does not make the task any easier. How social justice relates to and influences educational areas such as program development, curricula, practicum opportunities, educational philosophies, and social vision is a large conversation. What can be said is that education plays a part in promoting justice and the development of democratic citizenship. One might argue that this educational commitment to social justice is diminished through our current political environment of emphasizing curriculum tied to basic literacy and numeracy and not much else.
In addition to a modern emphasis on academic success in the face of globalization, countries throughout the world continue to adopt the social justice principle of universal education for all children including “at-promise” students. This increasing inclusiveness has led to challenges of diversity, individuality, and discipline. Schools must now weigh the needs of the many with the needs of the few. An individual student’s right to an education and to be college-ready must be weighed against the majority of students’ rights to a safe and affirming educational environment. To combat these challenges, schools in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and North America are implementing restorative practices in the form of victim-offender conferences as a process for conflict resolution and student discipline. Teachers and staff are trained as mediators and lead restorative circles to bring together the offender, victim, and community members in an effort to turn injury into personal healing and community development (Wearmouth et al. 2007).
Within the United States, a restorative approach to discipline could be perceived as a realistic alternative to zero-tolerance retributive policies, which mandate suspension and expulsion, and disproportionately target minority students. Specifically, minority youth are disproportionately represented in the number of school suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to the juvenile justice system. Restorative justice is increasingly being implemented as an alternative to retributive school discipline polices and a social justice response to the school to prison pipeline. There is minimal research on school-based restorative justice and even less on its implementation and efficacy in schools serving youth of color. However, one example of how restorative justice policies reduce violence, suspensions, and referrals to the juvenile justice system can be found in the Oakland Unified School District. In a 2007 case study conducted by the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at the University of California, Berkeley, Cole Middle School in West Oakland’s restorative justice program (created as an alternative to zero-tolerance disciplinary polices) was found to resolve conflict and build school community.
All teachers and staff at Cole Middle School were trained in the practice of disciplinary circles and community-building activities (Sumner et al. 2010). This new restorative discipline program then became the primary way of resolving disciplinary issues at Cole. Students were also offered an elective restorative justice class, and a full-time disciplinary case manager was provided. Students participated in restorative circles which also included teachers and staff. The circles were led by a circle keeper to ensure everyone had an opportunity to speak. The morning advisory period was utilized as time to hold restorative circles and address disciplinary infractions. The study concluded that the restorative justice program strengthened school relationships, promoted and fostered social justice, helped students and adults deal with violence in their community, reduced suspensions by 87%, expulsions to zero, and saw increased student responsibility and autonomy (Sumner et al. 2010).
Restorative justice programs implemented in schools provide students with the opportunity to confront the harm they have caused, and in the process, students learn empathy and accountability. From a philosophical lens, restorative justice practices appear to be well suited for school campuses because they have the ability to support student learning by providing an alternative to retributive discipline and creating a supportive atmosphere. The restorative justice models employed by recovery programs promote social justice and restorative practices through an attempt to reintegrate offenders back into the school community. This initiative goes against the current education policies at the federal, State, and local level, which tend to lean toward retributive justice.
This encyclopedia entry focused on current realities for marginalized populations in urban schools. The author presented a broader theoretical, inclusive framework rooted in social justice and restorative practices that offer the best practices for a greater number of students who are “at-promise” of minimal academic success. “At-promise,” as opposed to “at-risk,” is used when describing underperforming student populations as it eliminates the deficit connotation associated with these learners. The extant literature suggests that examination of restorative justice practices specific to “at-promise” students and those from “other” populations within a social justice framework is very limited (Bacon 2010). It is evident, however, from the few studies conducted that by adopting this approach, researchers and practitioners can connect and extend long-established lines of conceptual and empirical inquiry aimed at improving student learning outcomes and school practices and thereby gain insights that may otherwise be overlooked or assumed.
A further argument posits that this broader conceptualization of social and restorative justice adds to extant discourses about students who not only experience various types of daily oppression at schools (e.g., bullying, rule-breakers, homelessness, mental health issues, etc.) but also regularly live on the fringes of society. The time has come to share alternative models of justice, practices, and discipline strategies that school leaders, teachers, community members, policymakers, scholars, and practitioners alike might find beneficial when searching for more effective means to create safe teaching and learning environments for all students. It is hoped that lessons learned from effective restorative processes in schools will improve the preparation and practice of school leaders, thus improve educational outcomes for all students, and help prevent the gross injustice done to children who make poor decisions and end up on the bus from schools to juvenile hall or to prison.
It is morally imperative to provide safe and supportive learning environments for all students and to generate, refine, and test theories of restorative practices in education.
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