Restorative Justice in the Chronicle of Higher Education

The Chronicle today ran an article about restorative justice programs on campuses.  I paste much of the text of it below.  I wonder whether many state Bars have refined their fitness questions and standards to reflect changes in the ways that campuses deal with offenses.  Perhaps a good research paper for a law student?…

Michael Moffitt


APRIL 14, 2009

With ‘Restorative Justice,’ Colleges Strive to Educate Student Offenders

Dustin got so drunk one night in December that he didn’t know what happened until he read the police report. His spree, he discovered, had included passing out in a family’s front yard, scuffling with the father, and cursing at and fighting with police officers. “I overdid it,” says Dustin, 19, a freshman at Colorado State University who preferred not to give his last name. “I was so ashamed and embarrassed of myself for basically everything.”
Charged with felony assault, Dustin is serving two years’ probation, taking alcohol-management classes, and performing 160 hours of community service around Fort Collins. But a student-conduct program at Colorado State, he says, has given him more of a chance to make amends.
In a campus hearing, Dustin accepted responsibility for underage drinking and other offenses, and a conduct officer proposed the sanction of “restorative justice.” Agreeing to it meant that, this month, Dustin met with the family and the police officers from that night in December. He listened to their accounts of the incident, apologized, and worked out an agreement to “pay it forward,” he says. As part of the deal he will talk to students in the neighborhood about drinking responsibly and volunteer to drive for the university’s RamRide program, which provides students safe rides home.
“I definitely needed to take responsibility for this one, and learn from it,” says Dustin. The restorative-justice conference let him do that, he says: “The way that you see how you affected people is very powerful.”
Student-conduct administrators around the country are hailing restorative justice as the next big thing. A blend of mediation and restitution, it seeks to resolve a conflict by identifying the harms caused and devising, with suggestions from both victims and offenders, an agreement to repair them. That approach to discipline grabs campus officials who carry the banner of student development. Restorative justice not only offers an alternative to the legalistic conduct systems colleges now shun; it also resonates with so many mission statements about personal growth and community.
David R. Karp is spreading the buzz. As a sociologist, he has studied the use of restorative justice in some states’ criminaland juvenile-justice systems. Now, as associate dean of student affairs at Skidmore College, he is promoting it at higher-education conferences. “People come up to me afterwards and say, ‘We just have to do this,'” he says.
In the past few years, a smattering of institutions — including Clemson University, Guilford College, and Michigan State University — have adopted restorative justice to varying degrees. At the University of Michigan, conduct officers are now diverting some students’ cases from traditional hearings to restorative conferences. Elsewhere, a conference is a possible sanction after a hearing, or a condition for returning from a suspension. Even without formal programs, some conduct offices are applying the principles of restorative justice, more deliberately challenging students to consider the impacts of their behavior.
Concerns crop up, usually that restorative justice squashes students’ due-process rights or goes too easy on them, says Anne Lundquist, dean of students at Wells College, in Aurora, N.Y. She emphasizes that the process is voluntary for students who have claimed responsibility for misconduct. And compared with traditional sanctions, she says, the custom agreements reached through restorative conferences result in “longer, meatier lists of consequences” — and fewer repeat offenders.
Bringing People Together
Paul W. Osincup knows how to spot good candidates for restorative justice: He looks for at least a hint of remorse.
As an assistant director of conflict resolution and student-conduct services at Colorado State, Mr. Osincup talks with many students about allegations against them. If he says, “What’s the worst part?” and hears, “Paying these fines,” or asks, “What would you say to the person affected?,” and gets, “Why’d you have to tell the RA?,” he usually assigns traditional sanctions. But if students offer even a terse, grunted “Sorry,” he refers them to Shay Bright, who runs the university’s restorative-justice program.
Ms. Bright, an assistant director in the same office, talks to students to make sure they are genuinely up for a tough reckoning and are not just trying to avoid a different sanction. This semester Ms. Bright and a graduate assistant will handle about 20 cases.
After speaking with each student referred to her, Ms. Bright contacts anyone affected by the misconduct to explain restorative justice and ask if they want to take part. After two students released a bullsnake in a lecture hall, she called the professor and a student who was bitten. If victims don’t want to participate, she either sends the case back or uses a proxy. A student who had anti-gay slurs scrawled on his door declined to participate in a restorative conference, so Ms. Bright invited in the university’s director of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender student services.
Before the conference, Ms. Bright meets with all parties to figure out what they’re going to share. She might say to an offender, “Hey, that one thing you said? If I were the person affected, that would really bother me.” She doesn’t disclose information back and forth but may tip off a student to a victim’s feelings: “They’re pretty emotional. I want you to be ready for it.”
Everyone who attends the conference, which runs about two hours, sits in a circle, and Ms. Bright follows a facilitator’s script. She welcomes the group, briefly reviews the incident that brought them together, and asks the offender and victims to describe how it happened. Legal experts say that confidential meetings where students make voluntary disclosures conform with federal privacy law.
Together, the group crafts an agreement. Sometimes victims want no more than an apology, Ms. Bright says. In a recent cheating case, a professor asked two students to share their story with her class the following semester. One of the students who released the snake revisited that lecture hall at the professor’s suggestion.
“I wanted him to feel a little uncomfortable,” says Stuart Field, a biology instructor. “It’s not easy to stand in front of 400 people and admit guilt and apologize.”
Ms. Bright tracks the agreements, asking, for example, to see a receipt if a student had to pay damages. When students slack off, she tells them, “You’re kind of causing harm again by not doing this agreement.”
But students who hear firsthand how their behavior affected people usually do follow through, she says. That’s why she trusts restorative justice: “It can really stick with them and go a long way toward affecting future choices.”
Measuring Results
Whether restorative justice works on college campuses is the subject of a study set to begin this fall. Mr. Karp and two other researchers plan to conduct surveys at up to 30 institutions to compare restorative justice to more-traditional disciplinary models, examining repeat offenses, as well as the learning and satisfaction of offenders and other participants.
Peter Meagher, a doctoral candidate in higher-education administration at Bowling Green State University who is working on the project, approached restorative justice as a skeptic. “I didn’t expect that students would take to this,” he says. He imagined eye rolls: “Just give me my punishment, and let’s move on.”
For his own research, Mr. Meagher has interviewed several students who have taken part in restorative conferences on different campuses. He talked to one student who went to work for a farmer whose field he had driven through. He heard from a student who, after apologizing for stealing books, said he could go back to the bookstore and hold his head up. He sat in on conferences at Michigan with students who had committed noise violations and thrown trash out the window.
The restorative process — challenging but supportive — engages students, Mr. Meagher says. “They would pick up on who they harmed and how they harmed them,” he says. “They were learning the things we were hoping they would learn.”

2 thoughts on “Restorative Justice in the Chronicle of Higher Education”

  1. This is Dustin from the Article. I wanted to say great job on this, as well as defend the Restorative Justice program. Four years now after my incident, I feel it has helped the families involved, myself, and the community.

  2. This seems like a much better way for campuses to deal with the consequences of drinking –especially underage drinking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.