Healing versus punishment

Restorative justice takes a different approach

6/12/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

​More than two millennia ago, the Greek historian Thucydides observed “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” This expression of victims as powerless underlies our dominant culture of crime and justice; as a victim suffers, so the theory goes, the perpetrator must also suffer, as punishment.

What if there was a better way—especially in school? A concept called “restorative justice” might provide an answer.

“Punishment rarely facilitates healing for the victim,” said Nicholas Bradford, director of the National Center for Restorative Justice. Bradford facilitated a day of training in restorative justice for Tacoma Public Schools staff and school and community members from Pierce and King Counties June 1.

“Lack of participation in the process creates a division between what happened and the outcome,” Bradford added, describing the current system of justice—whether criminal justice or simple discipline enforcement in schools—as fundamentally flawed. Rather than developing understanding in perpetrators, Bradford said, simple punishment only extends an already-vicious cycle.

Currently, when one student inflicts an injury on another student, then the system inflicts injury on the perpetrator in return. Restorative justice, on the other hand, seeks to not only provide healing for the victim but create an awareness of the impact of the injury in the perpetrator.

Showing someone the impact their poor choices have made on not only the victim but the entire school community gives the perpetrator a path to making amends and rejoining the community—as well as giving the victim a voice in deciding proper restitution.

“Conflict resolution should not be a passive experience,” Bradford said. “We want it to be an active experience. This process creates space for victim input, as well as meaningful acts of apology.

“No good happens from revenge. If our community goal is to hurt people, we’re just going to wind up with a bunch of hurt people. There’s no room in that for the perpetrator to take responsibility and understand the impacts of their actions.”

​National Center for Restorative Justice director Nicholas Bradford facilitates a
training session for Tacona Public Schools staff.

​​Besides, the traditional approach sends perpetrators out of school on suspensions or expulsions, which interrupts and hurts their learning. Restorative justice attempts to keep students in school and on track.

In Tacoma, Jason Lee Middle School recently received a $141,000, three-year grant for staff to train in and implement restorative justice practices, in order to reduce suspensions and expulsions and keep students in school. Jason Lee has the highest suspension and expulsion rate of all Tacoma middle schools this year.

One restorative justice practice Jason Lee may adopt, the “circle,” includes not only the perpetrator and victim but members of the school community in which the conflict happened—students, staff, family members, and others. Everyone present speaks in turn as they get handed a “talking piece” that passes around the circle. The entire group then addresses strategies for resolving the conflict, and ways for the perpetrator to make restitution, with the goal of giving the perpetrator an understanding of the full impact—on the victim as well as beyond—of the injury.

Tacoma Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Josh Garcia tied the effort to Tacoma’s Whole Child Initiative, arguing that educational success depends on more than just the classroom experience.

“The challenges kids face are not all created inside the schools,” Garcia said. “We recognize that learning happens 24/7, 365. What we’re trying to do is change a culture and create a better way to handle things. This is going to be a long conversation.”

Such challenges often fall much more heavily on students of color, as well as other traditionally marginalized communities. Recognizing and accounting for those differences, in turn, presents a challenge for schools, especially when it comes to discipline.

Nikum Pon, director of equity in education for the Puget Sound Educational Service District, described his own experience as a Cambodian immigrant growing up in Tacoma. For example, Pon said, in his traditional Cambodian family household, looking an adult in the eye was considered disrespectful. On the other hand, at school, not looking the teacher in the eye might result in a bad class participation grade.

“Even though I was fluent in English, I was caught in the (English as a Second Language) trap until I got to middle school, and my grades suffered,” Pon said. “Then I learned to forge my mother’s signature, and enrolled myself in AP classes. After that I started getting A’s.”

Not all kids possess the capacity for navigating the system so adroitly, Pon added, which leads to frustration and ultimately conflict. 

“Beginning teacher candidates often come in thinking ‘I’m going to save those kids,’” said Pon. “I have to bust their bubbles. It’s not about ‘fixing’ students. It’s about building adult capacity to respond to student conflicts in a culturally appropriate way.”

Take the plight of left-handed people, Pon said. Right-handed people far outnumber lefties, and the dominant culture of right-handedness often ignores or marginalizes lefties.

“It’s in everything—look at a typical classroom. How many left-handed desks are there? Maybe one or two if that,” Pon said. “Notebooks. Scissors—scissors are almost always right-handed, and you will cut yourself eventually if you’re left-handed. How do we respond? I’m not going to make my left-handed brothers and sisters assimilate. I’m going to try and use my left hand. Look at basketball—what makes LeBron James such a great player? He’s ambidextrous.”

Restorative justice in the United States first emerged from the criminal justice system and juvenile detention, Bradford said, only recently working into education and school settings. Across the globe, the idea helped resolve conflicts in areas as strife-torn as post-Apartheid South Africa, where the new government instituted a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to re-integrate their society.

In a school setting, the goal is simple: Student success. Victim or perpetrator, students need to be in school, and suspensions and expulsions mostly exacerbate problems rather than solving them.

“Why do we exclude and isolate (students) so much?” Bradford asked. “In the relationships that mean the most to us, we don’t put the other person on ‘time out.’ We don’t suspend our wives or husbands. Much as we sometimes might want to.”

Gil Parsons, a veteran educator currently serving as assistant principal of Chinook Middle School in SeaTac, said his school uses restorative justice principles to good effect.

“As a dean, I saw high numbers of kids excluded from their classrooms for various reasons,” he said. “As an assistant principal I’ve become an advocate of keeping kids in school and learning, where they belong.”