Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Restorative Justice

On October 1st, I attended a day-long conference on restorative justice, facilitated by David Moore from Australia (www.primed.net.au). Many EPSB staff members were there, as well as people from Edmonton Catholic Schools, Parkland District , a nearby Blood Tribe, Alberta Education and Alberta Justice.

Before I went, I happened to read this section of Alberta Education's book, "Supporting Positive Behaviour in Alberta Schools": (page 55)

"Suspensions can have a number of unintended consequences. Research conducted by the British Columbia Ministry of Education (1999) suggests that suspension:
- does not have the same effect as in years past due to the changing nature and extent of behaviours, and changes in family and community structures
-contributes to a student's alienation from school
-increases dropout rates
-contributes to academic failure
-appears to be a factor in students' involvement in risky or antisocial behaviour
-may precipitate more serious crimes in the community
-may have no effect or even increase the likelihood of the behaviour recurring
-may increase aggressive or avoidance behaviour."

What I learned at the Restorative Justice conference affirmed my personal belief that there are good alternatives to suspensions that all schools should be employing. By dealing with student behaviour through a restorative rather than retribution lens, we can teach students the critical skills of relationship, conflict and anger management, as well as develop their coping and communication skills. Children can also learn to be more intrinsically (internally) motivated, rather than relying on traditional "sticks and carrots" methods which seek to force or coax positive behaviour. We know from experience that once the stick or carrot disappears, so does the positive behaviour. So, it is essential for children to become intrinsically motivated.

Schools (and society in general) punishes for four reasons:
1-To restore moral balance ("You'll pay for this!")
2-To act as an individual deterrent ("That will teach you.")
3-To act as a general deterrent ("Let this be a lesson to the lot of you.")
4-To exercise power ("That will remind you all who's in charge.")

A lot of "Zero Tolerance" or "Tough on Crime" policies are driven by these four thoughts. However, research shows that they do NOT deter behaviour (see our rotating doors in jails), do NOT restore moral balance and are limited in their effectiveness of the other two objectives.

Instead of relying on an "single authority/punisher" approach, restorative justice demands full participation of all involved parties. All must come into the circle. (And if this sounds vaguely Aboriginal, you are right: this method draws heavily on Aboriginal teachings.)

A shared understanding is developed by asking everyone involved the same questions:
What happened?
How did you feel?
What thoughts went through your head at that time?

When the shared understanding is achieved, the group moves on to determine an action plan: What do we need to achieve?
What are several ways to achieve that?

And, after all the options have been articulated:
Which of these options is most practical and mutually acceptable?

What an amazingly simple, yet demanding, process this would be for us all to go through the next time we experience conflict. How different from our usual model of debate, where Person A puts forward their position and defends it against all assailants while working hard to ignore or destroy Person B's position. As was said in conference: "Debate is a machine for creating interpersonal conflict."

Some schools have fully integrated restorative justice techniques and are finding that is not only useful for solving interpersonal conflicts and student misbehaviour, it actually helps foster and encourage GOOD behaviour. Once trained in the techniques, the students and teachers use them everyday as a way to address issues BEFORE they become issues and to build resilience.

And isn't that what we all want? Safe, caring schools full of kids who know how to solve problems and who are resilient and learn from their mistakes? I would prefer this to suspending kids who often (because they often lack supervision at home during their suspension), end up making more poor choices, further compounding their problems, increasing their feelings of isolation and possibly damaging any positive relationships they've established in the school.

These are our kids- let's teach them how to be good humans, rather than focusing on "teaching them a lesson."

If you want more information, please contact Sue Hopgood. Coordinator, Alberta Conflict Transformation Society. suehopgood@ACTSociety.ca. 780-944-5265

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