Restorative Justice Gains Momentum on College Campuses
As the practice of restorative justice gains momentum within higher education, 35 representatives of colleges and universities from across the country gathered at Skidmore College to take a closer look at this growing movement.
The group attended a three-day training program, Nov. 11-13, designed to teach participants the basic principles and practices of restorative justice so that they can strengthen programs on their home campuses. The schools represented included Williams, Swarthmore, Dartmouth, Stanford, and three campuses of the University of California system. A common goal was to find more effective ways to address student misconduct and to improve relationships on campus.
Restorative justice is based on a collaborative decision-making process that includes offenders, victims, and others seeking to hold offenders accountable. The process requires that offenders acknowledge responsibility for their actions, take agreed-upon steps to repair the harm they have caused, and work to build constructive relationships and personal standing. A number of formats can be used—often with direct dialogue between the victim and offender.
“Student affairs administrators are responsible for keeping their campuses safe, but they are also educators who help students learn how to resolve conflict and take responsibility for misconduct. Restorative justice is a philosophy and a set of practices that help administrators achieve the dual goals of ensuring a safe learning environment and fostering student development,” said David Karp, Skidmore professor of sociology and director of the Skidmore College Project Restorative Justice, which organized the workshop.
In addition to Karp, the session leaders were Duke Fisher, a facilitator and trainer for Leaning Labs, Inc., and Patience Bryant, associate director for campus life and student development at Texas A&M University-Commerce.
Skidmore students also played a role. One session featured three student members of Skidmore’s Integrity Board, who discussed the approaches they use, and the challenges they face, in hearing cases of student misconduct.
Among the conference attendees were three administrators from the student development office at the University of Dayton, who are planning to launch an official restorative justice program. “We have a philosophical foundation in our mission that will easily allow for restorative justice practices to be implemented in a more formalized way on our campus,” said Dayton’s Jessica Hoelting. She noted that in addition to cases of student misconduct, she and her colleagues plan to use their new skills to resolve conflicts and head off problems in the residence halls before they reach a “conduct level.”
Tony Tolbert, who came to the conference from UCLA Law School, has used restorative justice approaches to address conflicts among student organizations. “We need to clear a space for students to engage in respectful and civil dialogue,” said Tolbert. “The goal may not be to come to an agreement because it may be two groups that are diametrically opposed in terms of their perspectives and ideologies. But they need to understand how one group’s actions might be harmful to another group.”
Not all the attendees hailed from college campuses. Skidmore alumna Marcy May ’78 came to gain skills for her work with young people in the Bronx, particularly 13–16 year olds who are returning to society from incarceration. “Restorative justice is a unique process that can help people resolve all kinds of issues. “My focus is helping young people build skills in conflict resolution, communication, listening, and diffusing anger, said May. “Above all, I teach them to take a second and think.”
Another training conference on restorative justice for colleges and universities will be offered at Skidmore, April 11–13, and training for K-12 schools will take place March 21-22. For more information visit the website of the Skidmore College Project on Restorative Justice at www.SkidmoreRJ.org.
The Skidmore College Restorative Justice Project is sponsored in part by First Fairfield Associates, a social-enterprise investment firm with an office in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (www.firstfairfield.com).