An article about restorative justice in Rethinking Schools describes what happened when a student who broke a window at Humanities Prep in Manhattan went before the school’s “Fairness Committee”:
During that session, the members of the committee found out that the day before he broke the window, his family received notice that they were being kicked out of their shelter and had no place to go. While this did not fully excuse his actions, we were able to discuss more fully and fairly what the consequences should be, as well as discuss more constructive ways to deal with anger. We jointly decided that he needed to give back to the school community in some way. Knowing that it would be ridiculous to ask a student who was homeless to pay for the window, we all agreed he would help answer the phone after school for a month. In the meantime, his advisor and the school social worker were able to reach out to his family and offer support. If the fairness committee had been a systematic, rigid mechanism, we would not have been able to brainstorm these solutions.
“Restorative justice” refers to interventions like that conference that facilitate discussion among the offending student, those harmed by his or her actions, and others with significant relationships to either the victim or offender, such as family members. The process seeks to make the offender aware of the harm he or she has caused, take responsibility for it, and try to repair that harm to the extent possible by making reparation to the victim or community.
Nice idea, but does it work in schools? A 2004 report of the Youth Justice Board of England and Wales reviewed restorative justice programs implemented in 26 schools (all but 6 were secondary schools), comparing them with similar schools that did not implement restorative justice programs. Specific intervention models varied, but all schools used some for of facilitated conference. According to the report, 46% of conferences involved a physical incident between students, another 25% a verbal incident between students, and about 8% involved physical or verbal incidents between a student and a teacher. Almost a quarter of conferences were about long-term conflicts. Conference mediators were trained in restorative justice techniques and included school staff, volunteers, professional mediators, and in some cases, local police officers. The evaluation found that 92% of conferences resulted in an agreement, and that two to three months after the conferences, 96% of the agreements had been upheld, suggesting successful long-term resolution of conflicts. Nearly all (89%) of students were happy with the outcomes, according to the report, and 93% found the process fair.
The report found no statistically significant differences in levels of victimisation when comparing restorative justice schools to those without such programs, but suggested this might be due to the relatively short time period of the study. Meanwhile, school staff members reported a decrease in misbehaviour in restorative justice schools, while staff in comparison schools actually reported an increase in misbehaviour.