Restorative Justice: An Alternative to Punitive Action in Schools

(This article was written for the April 2018 issue of Praxis Englisch, a magazine for Germans learning English. It was commissioned by Matthew Douglas.)

One of the things I find most abhorrent is the sight of an adult beating a child. It is physically revolting and mentally disturbing, apart from the fact that it is legally unacceptable in many parts of the world. How cruel are those whose hands do not tremble when they hurt a child!

Despite the breadth of awareness generated by psychologists, child rights activists and health professionals, there are parents and teachers who hold the twisted notion that sparing the rod implies spoiling the child. Clearly, wisdom does not always come with age. Numerous adults persist in their raw, unchecked abuse of power, justifying it as the only foolproof way to discipline children.

(Source: Indus Ladies)

Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say that we often treat children the way prisoners are treated in the criminal justice system. We label behaviour that breaks away from normative frameworks set down to ensure order. We administer some form of punitive action so that further transgressions can be prevented.

When I was in middle school, I was hit on my knuckles with a wooden stick. My crime was distracting the teacher while he was delivering a lecture. Others who came late to school were made to run around the school playground in the hot sun, with heavy bags on their shoulders. Friends of mine who fared poorly in their examinations were struck with belts by their parents. I have read newspaper reports of children who have been locked in dark rooms, or made to strip before their peers, for not completing their homework assignments.

Do these punishments have the desired effect? Are they successful in creating alignment with expected codes of conduct? To what extent do they enable an understanding of why these norms exist in the first place? Do authority figures seek alternatives to punishments that fail to achieve what they are designed to? How does violence impact the relationship between the child and the adult?

These questions are being asked in criminal justice systems as well as school systems that are invested in human dignity, personal transformation and community peacebuilding. The field of study and practice that has been guiding this work is called ‘restorative justice’. It might seem like a radically new invention but it builds on centuries-old traditions and conflict resolution processes in indigenous communities.

I do not recall where I heard of restorative justice for the first time but my earliest memory of discussing it goes back to the Seeds of Peace International Camp at Otisfield in Maine, United States of America. It was August 2014. We were a large community of students, educators, counselors, and facilitators who had gathered for three weeks of dialogue and group activities. The composition was fairly diverse. We came from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, Palesine, Egypt, Jordan, and USA.

Listening to the Middle East contingent talk about their struggles was an intense experience for me. People whose histories and identities seemed far removed from mine were baring their hearts, and making their wounds visible. They had lost their loved ones in the cross-fire. They were reluctant to trust each other. Their voices were brimming with anger, pain and frustration. Yet they were there, keen on making some headway.

Tarek Maassarani, who is of Lebanese and German heritage, and now lives in Washington DC, offered us an introduction to restorative justice. He was a dialogue facilitator at the camp who created a small block of time for those among us who were specifically interested in learning about restorative circles in educational settings.

Many schools are beginning to recognize the shortcomings of punishment-driven disciplinary practices that legitimize violence, perpetuate fear, and harm children’s self-esteem. They want children to understand and abide by rules but they also want a school environment that values empathy and emotional well-being. They are moving away from authoritarian structures that allow adults free rein to abuse their authority to democratic models that encourage shared responsibility between adults and children.

The zero tolerance approach is cruel. It focuses on teaching children a lesson, and coaxing them into submission. It does not protect their dignity, or seek an understanding of their struggles at home or school that lead them to deviant behaviour. It does not create opportunities for social-emotional learning. Restorative justice, on the other hand, wants to help them feel safe and integrated into the school community.

This way of thinking is a radical shift from the retributive model we are used to. Therefore, schools have to dedicate a lot of time, energy and resources towards instituting practices that require authentic communication, community agreements, and grievance redressal mechanisms that help all parties to address conflicts in a meaningful way. Processes are designed to repair the harm that has been caused. Those who have been harmed, and those who caused the harm, are brought together in dialogue.

A facilitator helps the people in the circle explore the impact of a conflict as well as possible solutions. The person considered as the offender is not shunned or alienated but actively involved in reflecting on actions and consequences, and in repairing the harm. Restorative circles are not meant to come up with short-term, quick-fix solutions. They are interested in the long-term health of a community, and on fostering relationships that are anchored in mutual respect.

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