Bullying is one of the most common discipline problems in our public schools. In the past year, 1 in 5 high school students reported being bullied on school property. It is even more of a problem in middle school. Fortunately, bullying is preventable; however expressing zero intolerance of it may not be the most effective solution. The doling out of punishments, the suspensions of students, and the arrest of bullies, may feel like bullying to the offender. These kinds of interventions are still one person's power over another. The challenge is that these offenders are in positions of lesser power because of their age. What we need to consider in our schools and in our families and communities is providing a consequence that will make it clear that bullying is unacceptable, while also helping kids understand the impact of their actions. This is called restorative justice.
Restorative Justice programs encourage teens to reflect on their transgressions and to talk about them – usually with the victims of the behavior – and to try to make amends. In some ways it sounds counter intuitive: put the victim in the same room as their offender? Isn't that risking further alienation? And yet what is a more natural consequence of causing harm, than taking the responsibility to repair it?
Providing restorative justice is a complicated and sensitive process. It requires the right environment, and an understanding facilitator. It is also very important that there are no additional repercussions for participants. They should not face any additional bullying for sharing their feelings.
Although there is not a lot of research on the effects of restorative justice programs on student well being, in my experience working with teenagers and the people they have harmed, these programs can reap many rewards. Offenders benefit from the opportunity to process their emotions and come to a place of empathy. Victims can feel empowered by being allowed to vocalize their hurt in a safe space, rather than having to internalize it. Being able to communicate emotions and to understand that actions have consequences beyond their punishment is also a critical part of adolescent development.
What research does exist on restorative justice programs in our schools shows that they significantly decrease suspensions. In Denver, where the school district began experimenting with such programs 8 years ago, they have seen their suspensions plummet by half. My hope is that this also indicates a reduction in bullying behaviour, but we could benefit from additional research on how restorative justice effects emotional well being.
To learn more about restorative justice programs in schools, visit: https://www.rethinkingschools.org/articles/restorative-justice