Opinion

Resistance to Restorative Justice: Understanding, Working Through Staff Skepticism

restorative justice: Collage of women and men over colorful yellow isolated background skeptic and disapproving expression on face with crossed arms.

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When you are trying to make the shift to a restorative justice mindset, having even a few teachers, support personnel or administrators giving push-back can be downright exhausting.

But just as we ask students to see their biggest challenges and mistakes as opportunities for reflection and personal growth, we invite you to see working with resistant staff as an opportunity for sharpening your own practice and delivering meaningful change more effectively. After all, shifting mindsets of those folks who might not yet be on board is where the true work lives. This applies to skeptical students and parents as well.

David Levine

Almost universally, skeptical staff feel there needs to be even more harsh consequences to control student behavior. It’s important to remember that we all share the same goal of positive student behavior and overall academic success and personal growth in school.

Despite the fact that traditional discipline has been found to be ineffective by these and other metrics, and probably has not been effective at their school either, restorative justice-resistant staff often see detention and suspension as the only real form of discipline. The most common pushback you will come across is a fear that “nothing will happen” in a restorative system; the concern that students will “walk all over you” or “get away with anything.”

You may also hear statements such as “I don’t think sitting around in a circle holding hands is going to solve anything” or “All a student has to do is say sorry or write a poem and they get off scot-free.” That RJ is nothing more than a chance for students to fake remorse and avoid consequence is a mindset that would make anyone skeptical of this work. It is important to understand where this fear and pushback are coming from and to really understand where the staff came to these beliefs.

The pushback may stem from one or more genuine needs of staff members:

  • I want to be confident this won’t happen again (deterrence)
  • I want them to understand what they did was wrong (expression)
  • I want them to feel as bad as I felt (fairness)

When looked at this way, the fear or concern makes perfect sense. People want to make sure their needs are met, and they are apprehensive that the restorative approach won’t satisfy these needs.

Let’s take a look at each one:

  • I want to be confident this won’t happen again (deterrence)

Detentions and suspensions have been shown to be quite ineffective at preventing recidivism. Often a student suspended will feel angry and grow more defiant after a suspension.

On the other hand, a student who has been in a restorative circle where all voices are valued, including their own, and where the incident is carefully discussed will have a chance to feel heard, to learn empathy by hearing from victims and will be able to participate in repairing the harm, improving their sense of agency. Making sure there are no unresolved issues around the incident and positively working to keep the student within the community can work magic at preventing further incidents of harm

  • I want them to understand what they did was wrong (expression)

Suspensions and detentions will make clear the fact that a rule was broken and that they are being punished, but this most often will not get at the root of the issue for a student. Take a student who is being teased every day who punches their bully. They may get suspended for the punch, but they may feel justified in their action. A suspension will not convince them of wrongdoing or give them skills to handle a similar situation in the future any differently.

Conversely, in a restorative circle or peer mediation with these students, the teasing student may get to hear how much impact their words have and take responsibility. The student who threw the punch may hear other ways the situation could be handled and both students can be empowered to take actions to repair the harm to each other and their school in a way that is based in accountability but not shame.

  • I want them to feel as bad as I felt (fairness)

Does it feel bad to be suspended? Well, a lot of that depends on the situation at home. Students may get grounded by a parent, beaten by a parent or nothing may happen. Often there is no adult at home during a suspension and the student is left unsupervised, which can lead to greater problems. The message is sent that “You do not belong here” for a while, and then they return. Advocates of this approach tout the message “Your behavior is not acceptable here,” and that is understandable.

However, in a restorative setting, the same message is not just implied. Impacted community members get to say it verbally to the student’s face. Getting to express, as a teacher, how upset the student had made you and to hear their reaction can lead to much greater closure than kicking them out of class and awaiting their awkward and often tense return to class.

Skepticism helps you

Here’s how this push-back can actually sharpen your skills as a facilitator.

Clarity of message: You will need to have a crystal-clear understanding of what you are trying to accomplish, and you will need to prepare more thoroughly, knowing that there are some dissenting voices among those you are trying to reach.

Practicing what you preach: Are you really invested in having tough conversations and forging relationships with those in your community who differ from you? Having this experience yourself will build your empathy immensely for anyone engaging in this work. It will also model the exact type of behaviors you are proposing: building community, having tough conversations, being authentic and brave, taking ownership of your agency.

Staff community: Anyone promoting restorative practices across a school will only benefit from bringing the same work to staff and staff meetings. When there are skeptical staff members, that should drive an extra effort to build staff community and bond through fun activities.

Increased perspective: We believe that diversity at every level is a positive thing, Staff are resistant not just because they fear change, but because they are coming from a different background or belief system. Their ideas need to be heard and considered and they may actually benefit some students who think the same way.

Authentically seeking to understand local culture, attitudes, norms, etc. is the only way to show you are true to your intention of inclusion and justice. Try to get to the core of what those staff believe and want, look for common ground and what approaches they have employed successfully that may benefit the restorative justice system you are building.

Ways to engage and embrace resistant staff

Talk to staff and students about what their experience or knowledge of restorative practices has been. Having a variety of voices will only help with buy-in, participation and strengthening your goals.

When RJ is used to address a specific incident, make sure that as many affected people as possible are present at any resulting mediations or circles, and find an appropriate way to communicate to staff all the work that goes into a restorative action. This may not assuage all detractors, but it shows the scope of the work, humanizes the student and allows anyone to comment on the restorative plan.

An important point is to make sure to follow up if the student does not meet goals and make sure that consequences are triggered as promised (a new circle or even a suspension) so that the contracts seem valid and legitimate.

At one school where I worked, the new principal had teachers spend some of their free periods in the RJ office to help and observe what we do. The staff saw that mostly we were talking with upset students in the same way that they often did at the end of class. Many of them were already acting quite restoratively in their classrooms.

Even folks who claimed to be “not into this RJ thing” were always into sitting down with students to talk and see what was going on and try to help. A lot of times teachers have trouble engaging in RJ after they were personally harmed by a student, and seeing the process from the outside can make the benefits more easily apparent.

If you are going to ask educators to use restorative practices with students, it should be used with staff as well. During one staff training I asked the group to “pair and share”: “What discipline did you experience in school and how effective was it?”

I love asking this question because it shows just how many teachers struggled with discipline and behavior in their youth, how many times they faced detention or suspension and how few times that approach worked.

It won’t always be easy to shift mindsets towards a restorative approach, but if we want to make it happen, we must be willing to be open and transparent, communicate clearly, remain inclusive and see all the ways that a diversity of opinions can help us grow and learn from each other.

David Levine has worked as an educator at public high schools in Brooklyn and Seattle, and as a restorative justice dean in the Bronx. He is currently a course facilitator at the National Center for Restorative Justice, an organization that provides training for those looking to change their relationship to conflict. Contact him at d.levine@nationalcenterforrestorativejustice.com.

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