Building a Restorative University

Increasingly, restorative justice is being used as a response to discipline issues on college campuses with encouraging results. Research by sociologists David Karp and Casey Sacks has shown that compared to the traditional conduct model, restorative practices result in fewer appeals, less serious reoffending, higher participant satisfaction, and improvement in student learning.[1]

It is estimated that around 10% of American universities have introduced restorative policies. Articles in the New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the College Student Journal have commended the use of restorative approaches on campuses.

Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand has also seen positive results following the implementation of restorative justice to handle incidents of student misconduct. We began accepting referrals of student misconduct cases from Residential Life in February 2016 and the interest and enthusiasm for the process has grown through this first year of successful implementation. Through the use of restorative justice, the university has been able to avoid suspension, expulsion, and the eviction of students from university housing and has instead offered a process that more fully integrates students into the community.

Victoria University has also gone beyond the implementation of restorative justice as a response to discipline issues to begin to create a Restorative University that fosters positive relationships founded on mutual care, respect, responsibility, and honest communication at all levels.  A restorative community is one in which every member is valued and feels they belong, where all contribute to the common good and where conflict is handled in ways that promote accountability and respect. This restorative community is being built through the intentional implementation of restorative practices such as connection circles and the restorative conversation model that build, maintain and repair relationships within the university community throughout the year.

This effort to build a Restorative University began during the annual training for Residential Advisors in February 2016. The Chair of Restorative Justice staff was given the opportunity to provide an afternoon training that introduced the RAs to the restorative justice approach and also taught them how to use a connection circle model to build relationships among the residents on their floor and establish group norms. The RAs were also taught how to use the connection circle to respond to behaviors that impact the entire community such as vandalism, messiness and noise. The connection circle is facilitated using a “talking piece” so that everyone has an equal opportunity to speak.

One RA sent the following report back after using the Connection Circle tool with her hall. She describes using a pair of scissors as a talking piece.

“I held a circle meeting with my floor of residents for our first floor meeting and it was WONDERFUL. After some gentle and funny ice breakers, I introduced the idea and started it off with a pair of scissors that hadn’t left my hands for the last week in preparing the decorations for the floor for them. I explained the scissors symbolized my dedication to the floor and the open space I wanted to create for the sharing of ideas and skills. I set the intention of the circle as a discussion of our values/rules that are important to make everyone feel at home. The first few people passed them on without saying much, but once they got talking it was awesome! I was writing them up on a piece of card to keep on the wall and it was things like ‘Smiling at everyone,’ ‘Celebrating peoples’ birthdays’ as well as rules about cleanliness and noise. Really such a great way to start the year!” –Residential Advisor

As 2016 continued, we offered a Connection Circle training for Residential Life professional staff and encouraged training participants to use the process with staff groups, RAs, and students. We also provided training on Restorative Conversations for resolving one-on-one conflict. We received very positive feedback for these trainings as participants began integrating restorative approaches into their life at the university.

“Building restorative practice both in daily conversations and within Hall communities is extremely important. We need to move away from disciplinary and blame to mending / fixing what is broken.” – Training Participant

As the number of referrals for restorative justice conferences continued to increase, we saw a need to form a team of restorative justice facilitators who could be assigned to facilitate cases after they were vetted by the Chair of Restorative Justice staff. In September 2016, we trained a group of 16 Victoria University staff members in Restorative Justice facilitation. The group that went through the training is highly skilled and very passionate about restorative approaches. We are now entering the 2017 school year with our capacity to expand implementation greatly increased. The restorative justice facilitator training also received high praise from participants.

“[My favourite part of the training was] the intelligence and skill of the facilitators, who delivered a top class programme that had me gently captivated from the beginning until the end… Realizing where our group arrived to at the end of three days was testament to exceptional, considered and meticulous planning in taking us on this RJ journey.  The attitude of the facilitators set a tone of respect and confidence right from pre-training communication… I felt fortunate from the beginning to be part of the group and felt a pang of sadness when it concluded.  I have experienced training where I am ready for it to be over by the end, however in this case at the end it left me wanting to know more.” – Training Participant

As the momentum has grown within Residential Life, interest has has quickly spread to Counseling and the Wellness Team. We are in the process of setting up training offerings with these groups as we move into the 2017 school year.

Interest in the work being done at Victoria University has also spread to other universities. In October 2016, my colleagues and I traveled to the University of Newcastle in Australia to provide a restorative justice facilitator training for members of their staff and to support and advise implementation of the process. We have already received further interest from other universities in New Zealand and Australia.

It is clear that the growth of the Restorative University model is filling a much-needed gap for campus communities. We know that student behavior, learning and happiness are grounded in feelings of belonging and of knowing that they are valued as individuals within a connected and supportive community. This feeling of belonging and connection is only accomplished when we devote time and energy to intentionally building, maintaining and repairing relationships. Restorative practices offer a concrete tools and a grounding philosophy to build these thriving communities.

[1] David R. Karp & Casey Sacks, “Student Conduct, Restorative Justice, and Student Development,” Contemporary Justice Review 17/2 (2014), pp. 154-72.

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