Back when I was in jail and probation—serving as an assistant principal for a charter school network based within the system—I saw a lot of students from various backgrounds shuffling through.
Since I was the AP, referrals were pretty consistent. The reasons were like how the ol’ saying goes, “If I only had a dime for each time”: disrupting class, disrespecting teacher/others, insubordinate behavior, inappropriate contact or fighting. (Pretty much words that begin with dis-, in-, or un- were used to describe such referrals.)
I’ll admit, there was a temptation to follow the traditional path. “What happened? Why did you curse out the teacher?” The response “she was being a [fill in the blank].” Interestingly enough, the student statements were just as subjective as the referral that followed them. Well, so “the book” tells me that’s a one-day out-of-class suspension. The process could have continued naturally in this fashion without thinking about it.
But I knew this was an incomplete, at best, type of discipline. Although I was restrained by the “book,” this type of consequence only focuses on the offense as an individual act with sole responsibility to the offender. They’re punished in the hopes that the lesson is learned and not repeated as well as to demonstrate to their peers to not act in such a manner. This is an example of retributive intervention (justice), widely adopted throughout our educational system.
What about the classroom and other students that were disrupted when the offender cussed out the teacher? Are they not victims? What about the target victim of this scenario? Was the referral note their only voice? Was I the only ear for the offender?
Luckily, there was an alternative path for this. My fearless leader had a vision, and it was up to the AP team to make sure it fit.
What is Retributive Justice?
I searched Google for this one: the definition of retributive justice is “a system of justice based on the punishment of offenders rather than on rehabilitation.” In a case of offense, the focus is on the action that the offender took. The more abrasive the action, the more severe consequence.
A good example of retribution is imprisonment. Imprisonment or confinement is an ancient idea, but it was not popular (consider imprisoning the town’s only doctor or locksmith, not viable in a close-knit society). Those who commit offenses deserve to be alone or segregated from the community in order to learn about their mistakes and, much like the in-school suspension tactic, it teaches others to not follow suit. The concept relies on the notion that people are replaceable, they are simply not fit for society.
So, how does this play out in the classroom? Here are some popular retributive methods that we’ve seen and/or even applied ourselves:
- “Time out” – in-school suspensions, detention
- “Stay away” – out-school suspensions, expulsion, building ban
- “No more fun” – taking privileges/extracurricular activities away
- “Pay it back” – community service, in-school service
- “Menial task” – performing a thoughtless task repeatedly
Ditch the Book: Start Restoring
The restorative approach looks a bit different. By definition, it’s a system of justice that “focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.”
I love the prefix “re-” because it means again. It works under the assumption that it has worked in the past. We rehabilitate houses so it’s livable. We find reconciliation with loved ones. And now, we can restore the balance of the classroom/school/community by re-establishing relationships and re-integrating the offender back into this society.
This approach views offenders as an asset, in which they’re able to make amends and change their ways in order to reinvest into the community and contribute in positive ways. It believes that the offender’s action affects the community as a whole, so making amends look more community-centric and focuses on giving the victim(s) a voice and role.
At this point, you’re probably wondering, “Wow, how do we go about doing that?” We’d have to answer that question with some more questions. Here are some essential ones to ask:
- Who has been hurt? (The offender is often part of this)
- What are the root causes?
- What are their needs?
- Who else has a stake in the situation? Whose obligations are these?
- What are the appropriate processes to involve stakeholders in an effort to address causes and make things right?
These questions could be considered before and/or during a series of interventions with the involved persons. Some recommended practices from UNICEF include holding small impromptu conferences in which the affected parties can discuss the incident or formal meetings with a specific structure and documentation.
A lot of people like to close by stating facts such as: “According to a study by Anne Gregory of Rutgers University, restorative practices can strengthen trust and accountability between teachers and students, while achieving equity in school discipline and improving the racial discipline gap.”
Yes, Ms. Gregory did say that and she’s right. Beyond that, let’s use our common sense and logic. Every person wants to be treated as an individual and asset—that’s why we’re all unique.
A restorative approach can develop a path to truly healing the brokenness in our schools and solving root problems rather than just doling out punishments in the hopes that someone will learn something from it.
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