Is Restorative Justice Needed?

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So this is a little snippet from today’s reading from “Hacking School Discipline: 9 Ways To Create A Culture Of Empathy & Responsibility Using Restorative Justice.” I’m just going to summarise the main points on why the authors feel restorative justice is needed and then to what extent I agree with what they’re saying.

The Digest:

  1. Harsh punishments and zero tolerance policies that react to student behaviour don’t deal with the root cause of behavioural problems.
  2. Exclusions take young people out of the educational setting and into (potentially) a life of delinquency. Instead, every wrongdoing can be treated as a teachable moment.
  3. Our job, as teachers, is to understand the root causes of the behaviour and address them.
  4. Restorative justice is about repairing the harm done by the student’s behaviour, instead of removing them from the class setting.
  5. The authors suggest we need to re-invent the way students are disciplined.

First of all, the basic philosophy behind the authors’ points isn’t wrong – creating a culture of empathy, understanding, care and responsibility for one’s actions can only be a good thing. So, I’m with them on that.

Second, there’s also something to be said for the effectiveness of the ‘punishment’ system in schools itself. I’d say that it will work to regulate 80% of your students and leave you with the 20% that will repeatedly go through that system. How many of those 80% of students will behave anyway and not as a consequence of your behaviour policy is a question in itself, however, there is definitely an issue of the same students getting detentions day in and day out, without a change in behaviour. Again, things that tackle this are welcome. Is restorative justice that ‘thing’ though?

Alright, so let’s deal with the five points from above. There are more questions than answers here though.

  1. You’re right – harsher punishments don’t deal with the root cause of student behaviours. Does that mean they’re not needed?
  2. There is a link between exclusions and delinquency, but I would question how much of that is a direct causal link. I would argue that the behaviours exhibited in schools by some young people lend themselves to escalation outside of school. It’s not the exclusion that’s leading to the delinquency – it’s the behaviours, which are carried out by those young people that CHOOSE to engage in them, which are then played out in other arenas outside school and land them in trouble.
  3. This is where it gets a little complicated for me. Let’s deal with the role of the teacher. The role of the teacher is… *drum roll*… to TEACH. Teach the subject; impart knowledge and expertise; embed a conceptual understanding of a set domain within a subject at the level you’re teaching within students using various tools such as differentiation, scaffolding, AFL, etc. So… teach, make sure they get it and make sure they can prove they get it in whatever exams and assessments you, I, or the powers that be can come up with. Basic stuff. Then there’s the wider picture. If a student is struggling with stuff going on in their own world – parents, friendships, relationships, bullying, drugs, peer pressure, hormones, etc, etc – then the LEARNING part of the equation is in danger. You might be teaching, but there are too many barriers for them to be effectively learning. So the other part of our role is the pastoral side that aims to remove those barriers to learning so that the teaching can be effective and we can turn our young people into successful people and prepare them for moving on to further education, employment, active citizenship, etc. Yes, this side requires us to understand the underlying issues causing behavioural issues that affect learning. What I feel is missing here though, is the agency of the student. At some point, the students have to say to themselves, “Yes, there’s a lot of crap going on in my life, but I CHOOSE my behaviours. I own my behaviour. I can see that my reaction was not ideal, but it was still MY action. I can choose another action to respond with in future.” We can lead students to that awareness, but the actions they engage in are theirs – the ownership must be theirs. I would argue that our role isn’t to address the root cause of their issues. Instead, it’s to make them aware of the impact of those wider things that are going on in their lives and make the STUDENT address the issue and how it has been impacting their behaviour in the present and how it/whether it will impact their actions moving forward. Agency is key here.
  4. Yes, repair the harm. But I hope this isn’t going to lead to eliminating the sometimes absolutely needed option of removing the student from the classroom setting and sometimes even the school. I hope the example makes sense here, but think about a murderer – the action is extreme enough to warrant their removal from society, even though we may seek to understand the context within which the action took place. Some actions in classrooms are extreme too. No teacher with any brain is going to engage in a conversation in the moment of a student throwing a chair at their head (yes, that does happen). At that moment, the student needs to be removed for the good of the other 30 students in that class (yes, classes are that big).
  5. Do we need to reinvent the way students are disciplined? Or do we need the discipline systems applied consistently and fairly, alongside the wider work of understanding underlying causes and repairing harm? Just a thought.

That’s the Digest for today. I’ll post more as I work my way through this book and others. Stay safe and healthy. And Ramadhan Mubarak to everyone that is fasting. It’s nearly done, so early Eid Mubarak to you. Peace out.

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