Today, Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced that restorative justice practices will be used to help students make amends for misconduct rather than punishing for it. Denver schools, however, will not wholly replace other methods of discipline with restorative justice practices: “I think it’s really important not to have an either-or approach,” Boasberg stated while subsequently affirming his continued belief that a police presence at schools is important. He indicated that Denver schools will still suspend and expel students when misconduct is severe, and police will make arrests and issue citations when necessary.
Restorative justice practices seek to repair the harm caused by a crime. Central to this approach is the belief that the crime is also an offence against the community and not purely a legal matter. This holistic approach promotes dialogue between the victim, the offender, and the community. During this dialogue, offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and listen to the experiences of the victim. The victim is supported by other community members in voicing their trauma and seeking healing for the harm done. Community members remind the offender of their role in the community and their value to the community. All participants seek to find a way to make amends and help the offender avoid future offences. When done correctly, restorative justice practices can be truly transformational.
To quote Superintendent Boasberg again, “It’s not, ‘You did something wrong, go home for five days and watch television,’ ” he said. “It’s, ‘What did you do wrong? Who did you harm? How are you going to make them whole, and what are you learning from this?’ ”
Kudos to the Denver Public School system and Superintendent Boasberg for embracing this approach to school violence. In my opinion, this approach is the natural continuation of the learning process. Just as the cause-and-effect laws of physics are self-evident, we as a society need to make the cause-and-effect results of conflict equally apparent. By embracing restorative justice practices, the Denver Public School system will be actively educating their students on the consequences of their actions and on methods of making amends for their behavior.
Students may still be expelled or arrested if necessary, but they will also have an opportunity to become a better person in the long-term by owning the consequences of their actions and learning from their mistakes as they try to repair the harm they have done to others. As a parent and a conflict resolution expert, I applaud any educators who embrace this holistic approach to education. I would much rather have my child learn how to make things right by having a difficult conversation with those she has harmed, than just be punished for her bad behavior. Understanding the totality of one’s actions is the first step to learning effective problem solving and achieving a quality education.