For the past three days, I've attended a Restorative Justice Facilitator Workshop put on by the Alberta Conflict Tranformation Society. I've had the opportunity to hear about this practice from a few sources, including Dr. Martin Brokenleg and some EPSB staff who believe that it is a more effective teaching tool than traditional punitive measures like suspensions or expulsions. This workshop was a chance to delve a little more deeply into the process.
If you aren't familiar with the process at all, you may want to start by visiting the Alberta Conflict Transformation Society website. There is also a number of books on this process or you can simply google it.
In a nutshell, this approach demands that the one who has caused the harm (or "offender" if it is a legal case) take responsibility for their actions, admit what they have done and come face-to-face with everyone who has been harmed (or "victims".) The facilitated conversation that takes place is raw, emotional and honest. Everyone talks about how they have been affected by the incident. Victims have the opporunity to have burning questions answered. In the end, the circle decides what steps need to be taken to move towards repairing the harm and rebuilding relationships/lives/community/hope. In most cases, conflict is transformed into cooperation. Hatred is transformed into understanding, empathy or forgiveness. Of course, it doesn't work 100% of the time, but in most circumstances, people on both sides leave feeling satisfied with the outcomes. (Contrast that satisfaction with how most people feel after a court case.)
This process is used in some of our Edmonton Public Schools as a way to address the root causes of distuptive behaviour, teach responsibility to those involved and unite a group of people to hold those involved accountable. The Principal is often one of the participants in the circle, but not the sole authority on deciding the resolution. For more information on how this can be effective in schools, you may want to check out this book: "The little book of Restorative Discipline for Schools. Teaching responsibility; creating caring climates." By Lorainne Stutzman Amstutz and Judy H. Mullet.
At the workshop, we heard from one EPSB Principal who had completely changed the culture of a high-needs school in Edmonton through adopting a restorative practice, first for herself and then by bringing other staff literally into the circle as incidents occured. After two years of consistently using this approach, suspensions and expulsions were dramatically reduced, feelings of safety from both staff and students had increased, referrals to the office were dramatically reduced, student achievement was dramatically improved, parent involvement at the school increased and collaborative work with community partners was successfully embraced. Behaviours that had been chronic suddenly stopped after using restorative circles. The Principal feels that this happened because the root of the problems were revealed, understood and dealt with. Empathy was created, connections were built and people were united in resolving the problem, rather than being locked into a pattern or camp. In Australia, where they have been using restorative justice for a while, studies show that in reduces recidivism by 40%.
It's hard to argue with the positive impacts of this approach and it makes me wonder why it isn't universally adopted. What traps us in the desire for punishment and vengeance? Why do many people see it as necessary to inflict more harm, in order to fix harm? There is a notion, mostly from people who have little understanding of restorative justice practices, or who have never experienced it themselves, that this is the "easy way out" for offenders and that we're letting them "get away with something." The fear is that if they get off easily, they won't have learned their lesson and they will just do it again.
Watching videos and hearing stories about this process for three days and experiencing it myself in a couple of role plays (once I played the offender, once I played the angry victim)... I can tell you, this is anything BUT easy. Even in a simple roleplay, I felt my heart racing. The pressure in the circle is incredible and you cannot squirm out of it. As much as you might try to put up a brave front, you cannot help but be affected. I felt remorse, I cried, I felt compassion. (and this was just "pretend" !!)
One lawyer describes the restorative practice as "naked accountability" and much harsher than jail time, because the offender has no one to hide behind. In a typical court scenario, the offender has a lawyer to speak for them and shield them from questions that are considered out of order or not relevant to the facts. There is no one referring in the circle- the facilitator has an established script of questions to prompt the conversation, but does not control the conversation. In fact, people are encouraged to say exactly what they need to say, how they need to say it. Nothing is ruled out of order and the offender has to hear it all, every angry, sorrow-filled, anguished reality of the damage they have caused. In the court, the offender is larger mute while everyone else speaks. In the circle, the offender has to speak at length and answer direct questions. They are definitely in the hot seat. In the court, the judge decides what will happen and everyone else has to live with it; in the circle, the victims and the offender decide what is fair. The offender has to make offers and see if those are accepted or not. The victims are empowered to state what they need to happen.
One real-life case involved a dangerous driving case that resulted in death. The family decided to pursue conferencing instead of harsh sentencing. In this video , the offender talks about how difficult it was to face the family and in this follow up , the family talks about how this processed empowered them to find answers they needed to heal.
The things that I took away from this:
- Healing is possible. Forgiveness is possible. Even in the most horrific circumstances (google Oprah to find a case about restorative practice used in a rape/murder. It is incredible.)
- Change is possible. Offenders can learn, can be affected, can become productive members of society.
- Kids can change and heal easier than adults and this process holds the most hope, for me, with children and youth. What are we teaching? What are they learning? We must continually ask ourselves these hard questions when we discipline children. When we say we are teaching them "a lesson"... we should check to make sure it's the right one. Kids who are repeatedly told they are "not worthy" or "not wanted" will start to do some pretty horrific things. If we can't find a way to repair the damage---both the damage they have inflicted and the damage they have experienced in their own lives--- behaviours will escalate and we will continue to suffer as a society.
- "I can't hate you if I know your story." As long as victims and offenders are anonymous and faceless, they will be separated by a wall of hatred. When you sit together and share your story, suddenly everyone is "humanized". This doesn't excuse the behaviour, but it changes our perception of it and the person who did it. It transforms and restores everyone in the circle.
And one final thought:
If families like the Stanleys and the Balsers can find forgiveness for the death of a loved one...surely we can find it for lesser offences in our schoolyards, communities, homes and offices. A move towards restorative practices would, in my opinion, build a better world.