Time after time in our work in schools, we hear teachers wonder what kind of consequence a student will get when they misbehave. Sure, students need some kind of discipline for unruly, disrespectful and harmful behavior. But the question I have is, “Why are we so enamored with imposing consequences?” What is our fascination with consequences and restorative practices?

Recently, the New York Times Magazine ran a long story on restorative practices entitled, “An Effective but Exhausting Alternative to High-School Suspensions” and again the issue came up. The author reported on a school that was trying to determine how to handle disruptive behavior by a student in a classroom.

“Some kind of consequence was clearly in order, the deans and the principal, Phil Santos, agreed. The question was: What would it be?”

Right here’s the problem. Consequences that are imposed by adults onto kids are simply not restorative. And, they don’t work.

Let’s review Howard Zehr’s definition of restorative justice.

“Restorative Justice is an approach to achieving justice that involves, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense or harm to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations in order to heal and put things as right as possible.” The key elements here are that it involves those who have a stake in the harm done. And, it meets the needs of those harmed–not just authorities in charge. The offender or responsible party is part of the process for making things right.

Too often, consequences are imposed on our youth as another form of punishment. And, if they happen to be natural consequences, the youth is a passive participant that has to accept his or her “just desserts” rather than to truly own up to what happened and think about how to make things right again. They aren’t actively engaged in reflective thinking where they get the “aha” moment.

Implementing restorative practices in a culture that is used to punishment is difficult. As Howard Zehr states, “under the inevitable pressures of working in the real world, restorative justice has sometimes been subtly coopted or diverted from its principles.”

The key principles that are missing from the impulse to impose consequences are these: “Violations create obligations” and “The central obligation is to put right the wrongs, i.e., to repair the harms caused by wrongdoing”–and this is a collaborative effort, not one imposed from above.

So, when teachers ask what kind of consequence a student will get for a misbehavior, the answer might be, “Restorative justice is about making things right for all parties. This approach is about involving students and the wider community in the process of repairing harm so they can develop empathy, responsibility and personal accountability, something that imposing consequences often doesn’t do.”

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