Restorative Justice: The Opportunities and Challenges

By Janet M. Irvine CyberBully Hotline Contributor and Author of "When Push Comes to Shove Back"

Restorative justice is a term bantered about in reference to the judicial system, and perhaps more recently, in reference to the educational system and its response to inappropriate behavior, particularly to bullying. Restorative justice, above all, requires a major shift in disciplinary philosophy - away from punishment for rule violation and towards repairing relationships among all those affected (violated) by the misbehavior, including the perpetrator. The goal is to move forward in a new, mutually agreed upon way. The philosophy is exemplary. Most educators would agree that the ultimate goal of any behavioral intervention is to move forward without a continuation of inappropriate behavior, and ideally, with "repaired" relationships among those affected by the initial offense.

The crunch for schools comes from two sources: training and time.

Restorative justice replaces the punishment paradigm with a form of mediation. In adopting the restorative justice framework, schools must supply training and support for its teachers. Mediation requires a specific set of skills, including rapport-building, active listening, impartiality, facilitation of communication, the ability to be non-judgmental, the ability to remain silent while participants create solutions, the ability to refrain from assigning blame, and patience. While some educators possess many of these skills and employ them in daily practice, many do not. Training for the first group is necessary to hone the skills and to formalize the mediation process. For those who must start with individual mediation skill development (sometimes accompanied by resistance to change), training can be extensive and time-consuming.

Time and time management are, indeed, the main challenges to the restorative justice paradigm in schools. Mediation cannot be meted out expeditiously. The time required for effective mediation is significant and it increases exponentially with the number of behavioral incidents and the number of affected participants in each incident. When implementation is further complicated by its mandate of being voluntary, by conflicting student and teacher time schedules, and by the additional requirement for follow-up, the ideal of moving forward with resolved relationships in a new, mutually agreed upon manner can quickly become mired in a sea of logistics.

Although the challenges to restorative justice may seem insurmountable (and an additional challenge can include convincing some teachers, parents, and communities of its validity), there is little doubt that it offers potential for positive change and growth in schools and in students ... and that is a goal most worthy of attention, resources, and creative solutions.