Violence and bullying in schools continue to rise across the region and the state. Last month, the superintendent of the Upper Darby School District, one of the largest districts in the state, sent out an SOS to parents imploring them to talk to their children about appropriate behavior:
“As parents/guardians, we ask that you please speak to your children about appropriate conduct on their way to and from school and in school…. I am asking for your help as a community to rally around one another to overcome this adversity.” This message to parents and the community came after a pair of brawls that left two students hospitalized.
Upper Darby, like many districts in the region, say they use a “restorative justice” model to implement disciplinary measures when students break the rules or act inappropriately.
What is restorative justice and is it working effectively in schools?
Restorative justice is a concept that emerged in the 1970s to address the lack of victim awareness and the revolving door of incarceration in the legal system. Often, offenders repeat their mistakes, and incarceration seems to do little to deter unlawful behavior. The movement towards restorative justice was aimed at “helping offenders recognize the harm they have caused and encouraging them to repair the harm, to the extent it is possible.”
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At first, the concept of restorative justice was focused on adults; however, in the 1990s, the idea was further developed to address children placed in the juvenile justice system. In 1995, Pennsylvania legislators passed Act 33 that amended the state’s Juvenile Act. The mission of Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system was redefined to include the goals of Balanced and Restorative Justice (BARJ). The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) defines BARJ further. “The principle of balance in connection with restorative justice derives from the balanced approach concept, which suggests that the juvenile justice system should give equal weight to (1) ensuring community safety, (2) holding offenders accountable to victims, and (3) providing competency development for offenders in the system so they can pursue legitimate endeavors after release.”
Act 33 changed the focus of the juvenile justice system to equally address community protection, victim restoration through offender accountability, and a path forward for the juvenile to redeem themself through competency development. Community protection is a key component, and refers “to the fundamental right that all Pennsylvania citizens have to both be and feel safe from crime.”
There are very specific components for each of three pillars, starting with offenders making amends for their behavior by making sincere apologies to their victims. That might be in the form of a letter or facilitated by a neutral party in person. Offenders are required to take responsibility for their actions and not blame them on someone else. “Victim restoration emphasizes that crime can forever change its victims, and that victims have the right to be restored to their pre-crime status to the greatest extent possible through offender accountability.”
It might take a youth a few days or a few months to get to the place where they can actually take responsibility for their actions. When they can express true empathy for their victim, then they are ready to make an apology. Victims can begin the healing process after experiencing the apology. Offenders taking responsibility for their behavior and attempting to make amends to the victim is the crux of the model.
Every student deserves a physically and emotionally safe school environment, and it is incumbent our public school administrators to ensure that for our children.
Another aspect includes community service to give back to the community they have harmed through their actions. This can include cleaning up trash, playgrounds, or possibly helping the business from which they stole. The community service is designed to atone for their negative actions.
Finally, the BARJ concept includes “competency development” for the offenders — education in the skills they need to escape a life of crime. The model recognizes that many of the youth committing crimes are lacking necessary life skills. Therefore, the third key component focuses on “providing competency development for offenders in the system so they can pursue legitimate endeavors after release.” Juveniles need training in anger management, basic life skills, substance abuse counseling or mental health services. Competency development in these areas helps to ensure they will not continue to repeat the same mistakes.
As the BARJ principles became mainstream in working with juveniles in the justice system, the concept began to emerge in schools, particularly in urban areas where bullying and violence are high.
While the principles are based on the same foundation, the implementation may be different.
For example, the Annie E. Casey Foundation posted a blog last year explaining restorative justice in schools. Of note is a statement about redefining terms used when discussing the model. “Many restorative justice proponents and others find the terms ‘victim’ and ‘offender’ to be stigmatizing and use the terms ‘harmed party’ and ‘responsible party’ instead. This blog post reflects the language preferences of restorative justice practitioners.”
The Casey Foundation’s changes to the terminology may indicate changes to the model in general. As explained, key components of the BARJ principles are victim awareness and offender accountability. By changing the terms, Casey Foundation is changing the intent and implementation of the program. “Harmed party” and “responsible party” do not have the same connotations as “victim” and “offender.”
The reality is that someone who commits a violent or illegal act is an offender, and the person who is on the receiving end of that behavior is a victim of the action. Changing the words to be more “politically correct” only softens the principles and weakens the implementation. Perhaps this is why restorative justice models are not reducing violence and bullying in schools.
When all BARJ principles are implemented effectively, the victim, offender, and entire school community benefit. BARJ takes into consideration that many offenders come from challenging home environments in socio-economically distressed communities. And that is why the model focuses on providing competency development to help these young people make better decisions in the future.
While changing from a punitive approach to a competency development approach is the basis for the model, it does not negate the need for consequences for poor, violent, or illegal behavior. Accountability works together with competency development and victim awareness. If schools truly want to embrace the concepts of restorative justice, they must implement all three components of the model. Every student deserves a physically and emotionally safe school environment, and it is incumbent our public school administrators to ensure that for our children.
Beth Ann Rosica resides in West Chester, has a Ph.D. in Education, and has dedicated her career advocating on behalf of at-risk children and families. She covers education issues for Broad + Liberty.