A new justice program aims to change the way school conflicts are handled. Known as restorative justice, the program — which has seen success in schools in the Oakland and Los Angeles unified school districts — will begin at Bear Creek this year.
The current disciplinary system uses what Principal Bill Atterberry dubs “escalating consequences” in which the severity of disciplinary actions increases with every infraction a student commits. Atterberry says the current program is not working and the answer is restorative justice.
Restorative justice is a judicial approach focused on assessing the harm caused by an offender. Conflicts can be solved using mediation circles where the needs of both victim and offender are addressed.
“Where [restorative justice] has been implemented, it has been effective at helping students develop empathy,” Atterberry said. “The students would still have a consequence, but they get to participate in the choice of that consequence.”
Atterberry’s plan for the program’s implementation is to start small by having conflict mediation, teachers and counselors involved.
“Students will be trained how to use it,” Atterberry said. “After teachers and students receive training, they would have these circles [where] they talk about when someone violates school rules.”
The program not only involves the victim and offender in the discussion and decision-making process but also the school community. According to an article on the Restorative Justice Online website, “Congregations might involve the victim or offender or both, as well as other students, a teacher or administrator to mediate the discussion, or even the victim or offender’s family.”
While most students interviewed about the new program did not have strong feelings that it would make a difference, some, notably juniors and seniors who have attended Bear Creek since their freshman year, say the use of a form of a student “jury” would greatly affect the student community.
“I think it’s going to be positively received because of the involvement of peers in the process of justice,” junior Maxim Chiao said.
However there are some doubts from the community.
“It’s going to require considerable preparation and change of the administrative climate before it is likely to have its full effect,” English teacher Grace Morledge said. In other words, the community will have to mentally adjust to the program for it be effective, which Morledge believes will consume a considerable amount of time.
Other students fear the negative consequences that may result from disciplining their peers. Most students do not mind judging others, but an issue arises when they have to assume judgement over their friends.
“What if I see a friend [as the offender]?” Chiao asked.
Questions like Chiao’s worry some students who have the possibility of being put in the “jury,” while other students do not believe their emotions and social bias would deter them.
“I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable because I would be there to help create justice for the situation at hand,” junior Victoria Castro-Chavez said. “I wouldn’t necessarily let my personal emotions for the individual interfere with the conflict at hand.”
The end goal of the restorative justice program is to reduce the number of suspensions specifically due to student conflicts.