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Restorative Justice in Schools Provides Framework for "Getting Behind the Hurt

Friday, Jun. 28, 2013

“The Person is Not the Problem…the Problem is the Problem,” stated Mary Kindig and Dan Sackheim, keynoters at the June 27th Third Annual Catholic School Principals’ Institute, a program of the Ethics Center and the SCU Department of Education, in collaboration with the Diocese of San Jose.

Kindig has a masters in social work from Columbia University and is Program Development Consultant with the Restorative Schools Vision Project. Sackheim is a consultant for the California Department of Education. The speakers explored a number of key concepts surrounding restorative justice, primarily focusing on the three distinct stakeholders in a scenario where harm has been done: the community, the offender, and the victim(s). Harm, in this context, is defined as bullying, incidents of violence or acting out, or any disruptive behaviors by students from kindergarten age and up.

The restorative approach essentially focuses on understanding the harm done, and developing empathy for both the harmed and the harmer; reintegrating the harmer back into the community as a valuable contributing member; and implementing customized systems into schools such as planning, training, and focus groups, all of which recognize parents, students, teachers, and potentially clergy as key players and decision makers. It also focuses on greater accountability on the part of the school and the community when an act of harm has taken place, and innovative and interactive models as solutions.

Kindig and Sackheim identified challenges such as the role of parents, teachers, and clergy in healing and moving forward; the role social media plays both in exacerbating incidents and potentially providing healing (by replacing negative posts with positive ones); and how to best embrace new and progressive definitions of discipline, self-discipline, and forgiveness. The challenges struck a cord with the audience of educators, many of whom had experienced or witnessed incidences of harm.

The speakers contrasted the restorative justice approach with a more traditional model.  In the case of harm, the tradition approach would be to ask: What rules have been broken? Who broke them? What punishment do they deserve? The restorative model asks: Who has been hurt? What are their needs? Whose obligations are these?

What does the model for restorative justice in schools look like in action? Regularly healing circles in which all parties engage in healthy communication would be one example. Contracts between students, teachers, and administrators that describe acceptable behaviors are another. Finally, traditional disciplinary measures are still a fall-back option in some scenarios.

Mary Kindig serves as the Program Development Consultant for The Restorative Schools Vision Project, which brings restorative justice philosophy into schools as a solution to high rates of student expulsions and suspensions.  Dan Sackheim is Education Program Consultant, California Department of Education.