It is important to understand that, in schools, implementing restorative justice is primarily about building and maintaining community. We then use that foundation of community to respond to harm and conflict. Long term cultural transformation is our goal. That starts with community! Once a restorative culture is created in a school, the focus can shift to responding to harm using RJ processes.
A Restorative Response to Harm
Because our current system operates contrary to restorative principles, it is common for implementation of restorative practices to be misunderstood and face resistance; despite this, restorative justice in its basic form is an intuitive concept for most people. In his seminal work, Changing Lenses, Howard Zehr examines the way in which we typically respond to crime and wrongdoing:
Retributive criminal justice systems:
1. What rules or laws were broken?
2. Who broke them?
3. What is the punishment?
1. What was the harm?
2. What are their needs of everyone involved?
3. What are the obligations to address the needs and repair the relationships? Who are the stakeholders that need to come together for this dialogue?
RJ allows affected parties the opportunity to collectively define the impact and determine steps to make things as right as possible for everyone—the person(s) harmed, the person(s) who harmed others, and the broader community. Restorative justice takes incidents that might otherwise result in punishment and finds opportunities for students to recognize the impact of their behavior, understand their obligation to take responsibility for their actions, and take steps towards making things right.
Involving those affected is a cornerstone of restorative justice: restorative questions cannot be adequately answered without the involvement of those who have been most affected. Through this process, students learn how to manage their relationships with adults and peers and become better equipped to understand how their behavior impacts others. This encourages accountability, improves school safety, and helps students to develop skills so the school community can succeed.
Stated another way, both the theory and practice of RJ emphasize the importance of:
1. Identifying the harm.
2. Involving all stakeholders to their desired comfort level.
3. True accountability—taking steps to repair the harm and address its causes to the degree possible. Accountability creates healing
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