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I am not going to link to it, but there is a video currently going around Twitter that appears to show two schoolboys kicking and punching a Sikh boy in what seems to be a racially motivated attack. The video appears to have been recorded in England because the person who posted it to Twitter tagged the Twitter handle of an English school – which is one of the many reasons I am not sharing the tweet.
When it appeared on my timeline, I thought back to a segment that was broadcast last week on The Project, an Australian current affairs TV show. I did not see the original broadcast, only the edit that was posted on Twitter.
In this edit, an Australian education academic makes the following claim about school suspensions and exclusions:
“There are other things that we could be doing that are supportive, things like Restorative Justice. So, for example, if one child hits another child, they’re going to learn more if they are required to sit and speak and apologise to the child that they’ve hit rather than, for example, if they’re sent home and they get to play X-Box for the day.”
I find this a strange perspective. Yes, it is important to identify learning opportunities for students, but we have to perhaps balance this against more pressing concerns. You won’t see anyone making a similar argument about, say, domestic violence and with good reason. Instead, our first thought is to protect the victim, with the rehabilitation of the offender a secondary concern. Yes, I do understand that there is a difference between adult offenders and children, but from a victim’s perspective, it’s as scary being a child attacked by another child as it is being an adult attacked by another adult. Sending the attacker home, whether he or she then plays X-Box or not, at least keeps the victim safe in the short term while emotions are still running high.
And what if the victim does not want to meet with their attacker? What if they find this prospect stressful? Do they have a say? Are there not other ways for the attacker to learn that hitting other children is wrong?
And some victims may be wary of taking part in one of these Restorative Justice meetings, sensing that the attacker may mouth an empty apology and then carry on as before when they leave the room.
I decided to ask Twitter for people’s experiences of Restorative Justice (sometimes known as Restorative Practices) in schools.
The thread continues to build, but one theme that has emerged is that the implementations of Restorative Justice that people tend to view positively still contain what some might view as a ‘punitive’ element. For instance, a student may be given a detention in which he or she is required to write about what they did wrong or a student who is temporarily excluded from class is required to have a discussion about the reasons why this happened when they return.
This suggests that framing Restorative Justice – or at least some people’s take on Restorative Justice – in opposition to suspensions and exclusions may be a false choice. Indeed, about 15 years ago when I was involved in suspensions in London, we would have a reintroduction meeting with the student and their parents where we developed a plan that included a report card, a set of targets to meet and a discussion of the supports the school needed to put in place to help the student meet those targets. So, you could describe that as restorative. However, I don’t think it would have occurred to me to involve victims in those meetings.
A number of comments in the Twitter thread suggest negative experiences of Restorative Justice and a few people have also contacted me privately to tell their stories. Here are a couple of examples that I have lightly edited to correct predictive text typos and the like:
“I have worked in a school with Restorative Justice and it was very difficult. In many cases it made no difference to persistent misbehaviour but undermined staff, who began to feel that they could not discipline students. Staff became highly stressed and disillusioned. [They were] Often told lessons weren’t well-planned or differentiated enough and that poor behaviour was their fault. At times staff felt they had no option but to apologise for reprimanding students who didn’t meet basic expectations. Students began to believe they were always in the right. I… left as a result.”
“Being a relatively new teacher I used to think restoratives were a progressive, democratic and effective method for helping kids change their behaviour. Instead, it’s turned into me losing upwards of an hour of my lunchtime throughout the week doing restoratives in which I just sit there. It’s often with the same kids, with no evidence of their behaviour changing at all. Many teachers at my school are hesitant to go through the process because it takes so much time and does not amount to much.
There have been a few cases where restoratives between victims and perpetrators have been held, and some of those victims have confided in me that they feel anxious during the meeting, and that they know the perpetrator is not sorry at all.
It’s a frustrating system that the kids can game, know that it isn’t a deterrent, and I, the other staff and kids suffer and learning is lost.”
Of course, these are just two accounts. It may be the case that the majority of implementations of Restorative Justice are better and it is the motivation caused by negative experiences that has caused these individuals to share their perspectives. That may also be true for the Twitter thread. And I have no means of independently verifying these stories. I doubt whether anyone is making stuff up, but we all emphasise the parts of a story we see as important and downplay the ones we see a less important or that perhaps run counter to the narrative that we want to put forward.
Interestingly, the item on The Project suffers from exactly the same problem. Children and parents with negative experiences were interviewed about their experiences of school suspensions with little obvious attempt made to independently verify these accounts.
Given the largely anecdotal nature of the discussion, it may be better to conduct wider, more rigorous research before adopting Restorative Justice as an alternative to suspensions and exclusions in schools. The evidence we currently have on Restorative Justice from the U.S. is not encouraging, suggesting that it may harm academic outcomes, harm the school climate as perceived by students and is difficult to implement properly, even with extensive support.