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Building restorative cultures

Jul 15, 2009

by Dan Van Ness

Yesterday I wrote about the media treatment of a paper delivered by Dr. Hillary Cremin warning that restorative justice programmes alone are not enough to address bullying if there is not also a culture change at the school.

One newspaper reported that this meant that "trendy" restorative justice doesn't work to stop bullying. My entry yesterday considered the difficulty of working with media to present a nuanced argument when they are looking for soundbites to sell papers.

Today I want to consider another issue, one that Dr. Cremin raised in our correspondence:

[W]e do need to address the fact that some schools and local authorities are latching onto RJ as an off-the-shelf strategy, simply because the school down the road is doing it, or because there is money available from another sector (police, probation, etc.).  This can result in poorly conceived, superficial programmes that are unlikely to be successful, or to be transformative in the ways that we know RJ can be. 

Other services can become frustrated that schools are such impenetrable places, and that they have been unable to impact on cultures of schooling which remain punitive, hierarchical and lacking in strategies to promote wellbeing and peaceful communities.  It is these underlying conditions that I am interested in researching as an educationalist.  What is it that makes schools so resistant to restorative approaches?  How can we support change from the inside to ensure that these approaches are embraced in the ways that  they need to be?

What is my role as an academic working in these areas?  Do I avoid sharing the results of my research with teachers and others for fear of being misrepresented? Do I only give the good news so that we strengthen the case of an approach that is vulnerable to rejection in the current socio-political climate?  Or do I trust policy makers and practitioners to engage with me in genuine debate and problem-solving? 

I hope that this give more background as to why I did voice concerns about the need for RJ to be properly imbedded.  The reverse is often the case, resulting in some reduced / damaging practice at times. 

The media may like soundbites, but most human beings fall into a similar trap from time to time: we seek silver bullets -- single interventions that will solve our problems.The difficulty is that problems are usually complex which means that they will have no single-faceted solution.

Schools are an interesting arena of work and study, because they have their own cultures. Those are complex and not easily changed. They can change, but generally that is because there has been a courageous champion of innovation.

One of my favorite quotes (see my Facebook profile) comes from Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince:

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had the actual experience of it.

A school principal or headmaster who introduces restorative discipline as part of an overall effort to change the culture of the school will face resistance from many sources. They will need tools to instill new values, and restorative discipline can be one of those tools. But others will be needed as well.

A school official who has taken Machiavelli's advice to lay low, may half-heartedly introduce restorative discipline as an experiment but it will have much less effect than if that is done by a politically-astute champion of change.

What does this mean to those who promote restorative interventions? We should begin by acknowledging that we often begin with simple declarative sentences. We speak of its benefits. That is because we are trying to overcome the inertia (and attention span) of leaders wedded to the old order.

But we need to understand not only the potential, but also the limits of restorative justice. We need to become aware of the conditions in which it is effective. We must develop a nuanced conception of its role in schools, workplaces, families, communities, and the justice system.

In my 25+ years working with restorative justice, I have found that some of the most important contributions to my understanding have come from researchers who challenge the rhetoric and claims that we make. After all, if we really want a new order, we had better understand the nature of the old order as well as the limits and potential of the tools we are using.

That is why calls itself a "non-partisan" website. Not only do we avoid taking sides in the conflicts within the movement, but we seek to collect and make available all the information we can find on this topic.

We seek to adopt a posture of receptivity to those who criticise and those who warn. They make us better.

The book of Proverbs tell us that "Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses." Dr. Cremin, and other researchers of restorative justice, are friends.

By the way, in one of her messages she attached a notice of what sounds like a fascinating series of seminars beginning in October 2009 on the topic:

"Inter-disciplinary Perspectives on Restorative Approaches to Reducing Conflict in Schools: Exploring Theory and Practice from Cross-national and International Settings."

If you are anywhere near Cambridge, you should check it out.

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Dayna Weissfeld
Dayna Weissfeld says:
Jul 21, 2009 05:33 PM

I am new to the whole Restorative Justice community, but not new to the basic concept. I remember when I found the information, I thought, finally...someone, or a group of someones, has finally figured and found/implemented a solution to what I so passionately felt was wrong with behavior issues in our school systems. <br /> <br />When I read this particular article, what came to me was that part of the reason there tends to be so much frustration in applying the techniques of restorative justice in schools is the lack of personal evolution when it comes to the teachers and administrators that we have allowed to spend so much time with our children. I remember when I was young, I thought it would be cool to be a teacher, to have a nine month work year, and get great pay to, basically, babysit kids...and when I say great...I mean better than I was getting paid at the time, as a teenager, to do babysitting. It's a good thing I didn't become a teacher, as I now know, it involves so much more than babysitting our children..but I believe that a lot of the people who followed through with their idea of obtaining teaching degrees had that same mind set, even as they set out to get their first real teaching job. Let's face it...It's pretty easy to get a bottom shelf teaching degree. I know I am generalizing, here...and I am well aware that there are many great educators among us...The ones with a true passion for the children and the role they play in their lives. If you are one of those, You know who you are...and you can most likely look around you and wonder how many of your co- workers managed to get where they are today. My point many of the people that we are expecting to help us implement these restorative justice practices just are not our society's most intellectual, evolved thinkers. They generally aren't the people who see the big picture easily. In my limited experience with teachers and education administration, I have been thoroughly disappointed at their willingness to listen, totally amazed at their inability to be open minded. They have lacked the apparent desire to truly listen or care. Some of them, I'm certain, have become hardened through the years with their lack of ability to really interact and just maybe,have lost somewhere along the way, their dream of helping children...if they ever had it. But yet we expect these people, set in their ways and so used to having their hands tied when it comes to being original in the classrooms and really listening and seeing the kids, to become critical thinkers and set in motion a whole new way of doing things. As you said, it really is not an off the shelf strategy. Some of these people really couldn't implement these practices in their own small circle of family and friends with a lot of guidance and practice, much less on a moment to moment basis in a classroom full of brilliant, young, sometimes confused minds. So..although we can do as much as is possible with what we have to work with in opening some minds and re-educating....I definitely think that the restorative practice should be a basic element of a simple degree for a future educators. I know there are programs in place and developing for those who are interested in the practice, but what can we do to have RJ put into the basic curriculum of a bachelors degree in education. Is that in the works anywhere? I applaud everyone's work here at RS...and plan to become more involved locally in raising the awareness of our responsibility for change! Thanks for offering a platform for me to ramble! : )

Andrew Gibson
Andrew Gibson says:
Jan 23, 2011 06:50 PM

It is good point that is made in relation to restorative justice in the school system what are your thoughts of utilsing these principals in the criminal justice system

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