PHOTO: restorative justice circle

High school students attend a circle session at restorative justice class in Los Angeles.

DID you know that as of last Thursday, May 9, three people have been killed and 14 injured in school shootings in 2019? One student died and eight were injured just last week at a Colorado STEM school.

These numbers represent families, schools, and communities torn apart. What are we doing wrong, and what can we do to change the trajectory?

Our traditional approach in schools, as well as in our criminal justice system, is punitive. Punishment is defined as the imposition of hardship in response to misconduct. So if a student has done something wrong, or someone has committed a crime, we punish them.

Traditionally, providing services, education, or other assistance has not been a response to the “bad kids.” But referring to the school shooting statistics, I would suggest that our traditional approach isn’t working.

A different approach is restorative justice. It emerged in the 1970s as an alternate approach to the court process and is being used throughout the United States.

Locally, the Fairfax County Alternative Accountability Program (AAP) is a well-established restorative justice collaborative between the schools, police, juvenile courts, neighborhood and community services, and Northern Virginia Mediation Service.

At the Office on Youth, we have been working with Spotsylvania County Public Schools the last two school years to integrate restorative practices into their schools, and we will begin work with another local school district next year.

With the traditional criminal system, the focus is on the laws that are broken, who broke them, and what their punishment will be. With restorative justice, the focus is on who has been hurt, what are their needs, and whose obligation it is to meet those needs.

It is centered around the belief that all people are worthy and relational, with its key values being respect, dignity, and mutual concern. It differs from criminal justice in that all those affected by a crime or school violation are engaged in the discussion. The victim, the person harmed, has a voice.

There are multiple restorative approaches that can be applied to a school, work, or home environment. Listed from requiring the least energy/time to the most energy/time, they are: having a positive and respectful frame of mind; using affective language; being culturally responsive; listening to understand; using proactive circles that are responsive to an event or problem; mediation; and utilizing a restorative conference.

All the techniques listed leading up to mediation and a restorative conference result in a respectful and safer environment, and most of all, build community. In a school setting, all students have a voice, and the students get to know each other.

A restorative conference is a way to bring together all parties affected by an event. This includes the one harmed, the one who did the harm, and others who were affected by the harm. It is led by a trained facilitator.

The purpose of the conference is to explore what happened, how everyone was affected, and what everyone—including the person harmed—thinks needs to happen to make things right.

This does not mean that there won’t be a legal or school consequence attached, but the process allows for understanding and growth in empathy. It gives a voice to the person harmed. It allows empowerment of all parties to decide what will make things right. It helps the one who did the harm understand how he/she affected the person who was harmed. And it encourages human connection, which is essential to building strong communities.

The Office on Youth makes follow-up calls a few months after a restorative conference is held. In these calls, parents have told me things, such as their child has not gotten into trouble since the restorative conference, or their child is happier and less anxious at school.

The parents have expressed gratitude for being able to go through the process, stating that their child learned a lot. Some of them also acknowledged that they did as well!

Deb Lokrantz is the Fredericksburg regional program director of the Office on Youth, a commissioned agency serving the Greater Fredericksburg Region.

Deb Lokrantz is the Fredericksburg Regional Program Director of the Office on Youth, a regional regional, commissioned agency serving the Greater Fredericksburg Region.