Restorative Justice and Ungoogleable Learning

Last week, I had the privilege of leading a three-day training for our Restorative Justice Student Team. I had been working on developing the training for the last few months, so it was extremely gratifying to see it come together and to witness the students’ enthusiasm for learning about restorative practices.

On the first day, we played a game called “Out of the Box.” The game is designed to help students think of creative contract items that use an offender’s strengths and assets to repair harms and make things right. While setting up for the game and dividing the group into two teams, the silliness that characterized our three days together started up again.

“You never said we couldn’t Google it!” one student joked.

I laughed along with the students, and then realized that we had struck on a great illustration.

“Well, let’s just think about that for a moment. If I Google ‘How-can-Jordan-who-likes-to-draw-cartoons-and-make-silly-videos-repair-the-harm-from-stealing-Alex’s-longboard,’ what will come up?” I joked back, referencing the people and circumstance from the scenario we had been using for training.

The students laughed and agreed that a Google search like that wouldn’t come back with anything helpful.

“So what if I Google ‘Colorado-penalties-for-misdemeanor-theft?’”

We all agreed that Google would have a clear answer for that search.

“So if Google can give us answers for the traditional justice system so easily, why isn’t Google helpful in restorative justice?”

This started a great conversation that outlined some of the main points that differentiate restorative justice from the punitive system.

The students talked about how restorative justice considers the individuals involved, and takes into account the unique harms that have resulted to the victim, community, and offender. They also talked about how the best restorative justice contracts are creative and unique to the case. It is the collective brainpower of the people in the circle, considering the individuals involved, their strengths and assets, and the specific harms from the incident, that allows those factors to be synthesized into creative ideas to repair harm. Being truly restorative involves understanding the complicated world of individuals, the range of harms (physical, financial, emotional, spiritual), and practicing creative problem solving. This is a uniquely human ability.

With smartphones in their pockets giving them access to an almost infinite source of information, students today are being educated in a world very different from the world I attended school in not too long ago. When you can look up the date of the Declaration of Independence or the numerical value of Pi wherever you are in just a few seconds, what is the point of memorizing it for a test? Why invest the mental energy when you can just Google it?

This new reality calls for a radical shift in public education, especially at the Middle and High School levels. This shift is a liberating one! The time previously devoted to memorizing events, facts, and dates can now be applied to creativity, invention, and problem-solving. We can begin to adopt educational paradigms that capitalize on our uniquely human abilities. This era allows us to spend less time memorizing the correct answer and more time looking at questions with many possible correct answers. The growth of technology is a catalyst for us to begin coaching students in the valuable skills of creative thinking and problem solving.

Restorative justice compliments this shift. Rather than a student knowing that getting in trouble in class results in detention, we can now coach students to think critically about the impact of their actions in class on the teacher, peers, school, and themselves and then brainstorm ways to make things right and repair relationships with those individuals. This is meaningful learning because it is responsive to the world around us, actively shaping the communities we live in, and absolutely ungoogleable!

How does Restorative Justice impact the relationship between victim and offender?

  • Type of process: Community Group Conference
  • Conference Participants:
    • Offender –Les (36)
    • Victims- Sheryl and Tom (A married couple in their late 60s)
    • 2 Facilitators
    • 2 Community Members
    • Police Officer
  • Criminal Charges Pending: Reckless Endangerment
  • Referring agent: Police Department
  • Factual Synopsis: A thirty-five year old man accidentally discharged his gun in his house. The bullet went through his window and into the bedroom of his next door neighbor, missing his neighbor by a few feet and causing damage to the house and a family heirloom.
  • Narrative:

The week before Easter, Les was putting his guns away so that they would be safely out of reach when company came into town for the holiday. He stored away his riffles and then began the routine he uses to familiarize himself with his handgun. Les shared that this is something he does frequently so that he is comfortable using the gun and smooth and effective in his gestures. However, this time, Les made a mistake in the sequence and the gun fired. The bullet traveled out Les’ window and into his neighbor’s bedroom, whizzing through the air on the opposite side of the bed from where Sheryl was standing. Ending its trajectory, it lodged itself in the wall behind an antique mirror passed down from Sheryl’s great grandmother.

Sheryl normally stands on the left side of the bed while she folds the laundry. She does it the same way every time, but on this particular day, Sheryl stood on the right side of the bed. Looking back at this oddity, Sheryl says she knows there is someone looking out for her.

As soon as Les realized what had happened, he ran next door in panic, apologizing profusely to Tom and Sheryl, so relieved to see they were ok. Sheryl and Tom for their part said they were still in shock. What followed was a whirlwind of reporters arriving and police officers responding to a gun shot report, handcuffing Les and taking him to the Police Station.

The responding Police Officer later shared that Les was in a state of panic the whole time, in disbelief and terror about what he had done. The police department wasn’t sure what to do with the case. They didn’t want to send Les (who had no prior charges on his record) to jail for a mistake, but also wanted to communicate the gravity of offense and ensure that the harms were repaired to the greatest extent possible. One of the Commanders suggested that the case be referred to Restorative Justice. The referring officer shared in the conference that he wanted the case to be handled through Restorative Justice because, “when this is all said and done, they’ll still be next door neighbors.” Along with the physical and emotional harms, there was also a relationship in need of repair.

The restorative justice conference was an emotional one as both parties grasped the proximity to complete tragedy. One of the more surprising outcomes however, was how both Les and Sheryl spoke about the impact the incident had on their relationship as neighbors.

Sheryl shared that she hadn’t known what would happen after the police arrived, but she had seen on TV that in the lead up to a trial, the victim and offender should not be in contact. Therefore, for a while she asked Les not to talk to her and Tom. This created a strain between neighbors who before had always been friendly, sharing conversations outside their homes. Les shared that it was additionally hard for him because all he wanted to do during those days was to apologize and to check in to see how they were doing.

Through the Restorative Justice conference, Les, Sheryl and Tom all had the chance to share how they were impacted and be heard by each other. Sheryl shared at the end how grateful she was to have had the conversation, so that now they could hug and go back to being neighbors.

Sitting in the circle, what arose for me was a powerful contrast between how the traditional court system and Restorative Justice treat relationships after a wrong doing. The court system intentionally drives a further wedge by encouraging the offender to deny responsibility, by not letting the parties speak without legal counsel, by framing the aftermath as an experience of opposition between the two parties. Restorative Justice provides the opposite experience. The process encourages open dialogue, prioritizes repairing relationships, and utilizes mutual consensus in order to determine outcomes.

At the end of the conference, Sheryl and Les hugged and fell easily into conversation. Les will pay for the repairs to the house and the antique mirror. He will complete a gun safety course and will write a piece about what he learned from the experience to be published anonymously in the local newspaper. Those specific actions will help Sheryl and Tom feel that the harm was repaired, but perhaps more crucial to a return to normalcy is the ability to once again stop and chat in the driveway, or wave and holler hello from across the fence, the ability to be neighbors again.