Restorative Justice Failures

Photo: Greater Good in Education

During the October 10th Hamilton Southeastern School Board meeting, a motion was introduced for vote. Item number 3.03 appeared only on the consent agenda, which is not open for public comment. Had it not been for a single curious board member, the public would have remained unaware of what had just passed: a disciplinary policy based in “Restorative Justice.”  

Board member Brad Boyer asked for clarification of the theory and Assistant Superintendent Matt Kegley explained, “This is a way to provide strategies to our staff and teachers particularly, in creating communities in their classrooms and their school dealing with discipline issues in a way that is not discipline done to students, but with and for students.” The motion went on to pass 5-2.

So, what is “Restorative Justice?”  The International Institute of Restorative Practices, which will provide this training to the Hamilton Southeastern Schools, defines it as “an emerging social science that studies how to strengthen relationships between individuals as well as social connections within communities.  Though new to the social sciences, restorative practices have deep roots within indigenous communities throughout the world.”  The IIRP offers other resources as well as a list of partners, each tied to some aspect of social justice and communal social structure. In the position statement by the NACRJ on Historical Harm, they state their intention to “Develop a platform for addressing historical harm through an anti-racist lens, including anti-racism, implicit bias, and cultural competence training.”  

In specific scenarios and examples provided by each of these intertwined associations, they contrast the implicit bias of “old school discipline” and the equity value of “Restorative Justice.”  The implementation asks the accused to offer apology to the victim, accept responsibility, and return to the group.  In the new approach, the community is involved in the discussion of the incident, including the victim and accused aggressor, as well as other members of the class.  

For this to work as intended, it assumes several things: the accused is inclined to make amends and publicly express regret, the victim is willing to both offer forgiveness and is mentally prepared to publicly confront their aggressor, and the community will correctly assign responsibility, offer sympathy, and demand accountability from the aggressor. Unsurprisingly, when put into practice, restorative justice often fails in its ideals.

In a heartbreaking article from Education Post, one mother describes her child’s troubling experience with Restorative Justice. The author is both a school administrator herself as well as a mother of a student. She explains her own initial belief in the practice and her year-long training to understand the implementation. Unfortunately, the issues only became clear when her son was the target of bullying and forced into the new process.

My son had been the target of three young boys for a month. The boys would regularly threaten him, call him ‘homo,’ ‘fag,’ and ‘pussy,’ steal his lunch money and chase him out of school. They ultimately beat him up.”

The idea that my son would sit in a circle with three boys who had tormented him for months made me physically sick. He would have no one there to sit beside him and support him. I had been an educator long enough to know what would happen—I may be cynical, but I’m not stupid.”

The situation didn’t end well, with the three boys again attacking the initial victim, this time pantomiming the “restorative circle” during the attack. The accused went on to allegedly assault another student. One finally faced suspension, while the other two “could not be suspended due to the district policy on excessive suspensions for certain groups of students.” The victim has since changed schools. 

In one sense, Restorative Justice is admirable—it is important to recognize our own sins, offer an apology, and attempt to better a community going forward—but this theory fails to address human individuality, especially in children. Not every child is prepared to publicly confront his or her aggressor. Not every aggressor is prepared to sincerely accept responsibility. Not every community group is prepared to correctly assign blame and accountability, especially with young children who are just beginning to struggle with social acceptance amongst their peers. 

The entire process puts teachers in a difficult position and sacrifices time meant for academic instruction. Restorative Justice may be one part of an effective disciplinary program in narrowly defined situations, but it simply isn’t appropriate as a blanket strategy. 

Benjamin Orr
Benjamin Orr is the father of two children in the Hamilton Southeastern School District. Over the past 18-24 months, he has grown concerned with the decline in academic focus in schools and the emphasis on political ideology. He has since become involved by attending board meetings and joining a local advocacy group Fishers One.