Restorative Justice in Schools

A couple of articles on corporal punishment elsewhere on this website have attracted some comment and discussion.

Whilst it is undeniable that corporal punishment was once relatively common in many Christian Brothers Schools (as it was in most schools and in the broader community at the time) and whilst it was also the case that at times it was applied excessively and unfairly, it is also true that as a form of discipline it has long since disappeared from Edmund Rice schools.

In fact at a time when corporal punishment is still widely practiced around the world (see report) Edmund Rice schools can be seen to be leading the way in offering alternative approaches to discipline as the following editorial in the Christchurch Press demonstrates.

“On the face of it, a new approach by the St Thomas of Canterbury school to misbehavior by students has been an extraordinary success. Since replacing its pastoral care behaviour management system with a restorative justice programme, the number of suspensions and expulsions the school has made have plummeted.

The new programme was launched six years ago. In the preceding three years, the school stood down 60 students, suspended 18 and excluded two. After five years of the new programme in practice, there was only one stand-down last year (and that was to enable a student to enroll in alternative education). So far this year, there has been no-one in any of the three disciplinary categories.

The restorative justice system the school has adopted appears very similar to the one used in the outside justice system. A conference is held involving the offender, the victim, school staff and a police youth aid officer, with the aim, as the school puts it, of finding out what harm has been done and trying to fix it.

A crucial element is trying to elicit any underlying cause there may be for the offender’s misbehavior. The school gives the example of an older boy who at a restorative justice meeting told of having been beaten by his father all his life and of turning to violence himself after the father had left the family. The awareness, which the school might not otherwise have had, of factors that went some way towards explaining why the student was behaving as he did enabled a constructive intervention that led him away from the possibility of a joining a gang and into tertiary education instead.

Results like this are not easy to achieve. The school itself has to devote considerable resources to it – undoubtedly more than would be spent on the process leading to expulsion. It is also demanding on the participants who are required to face up to their shortcomings. It can be emotionally testing. But for St Thomas of Canterbury the results speak for themselves. And clearly if it saves students who might otherwise be excluded and go off the rails entirely it is worth the effort.

Restorative justice in the wider world is regarded with some skepticism. If it is not to be misused, it must be well managed. Too often it appears to be a soft option, used by knowing young offenders as an opportunity to make a show of contrition, and sometimes not even that, and to carry on misbehaving exactly as before. Victims, who may be reluctant to be involved, can feel intimidated and victimized again by a system that seems more concerned about the offender than about them. Care must be taken to avoid a power imbalance that practiced offenders can exploit.

Properly run, however, restorative justice can be valuable for both sides. In a closed community like a school, where all parties will continue to encounter one another, it is also easier for behavior to be monitored, so gaming the system is harder to get away with. St Thomas’s results suggest its system could well be worth emulation by other schools.”

The application of Restorative Justice principles to discipline is now common across many Edmund Rice Schools  in Australia and New Zealand.

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