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Making the case for restorative justice
Bernard Klop has been implementing restorative justice practices in Chillliwack schools for years, changing the punishment mindset of teachers and administrators throughout the district.
And he's been doing so without the official backing of his school district.
Chilliwack school district is currently reviewing its drugs and alcohol regulations, following an incident in September where 10 Grade 12 students were expelled from Sardis secondary after admitting they smoked marijuana at a soccer tournament in Surrey.
The current regulations are set at zero tolerance. If a high school student partakes in drugs or alcohol related offenses on school grounds, or at school functions, they will be expelled from their school.
Klop, a district counsellor in the Chilliwack school district, hopes policy makers will choose a restorative approach over the more favoured punitive practices. But he realizes it's a tall order.
"We're really stuck in this thinking that if we can punish a kid hard enough, we're going to change their morals," said Klop. "But if you punish, you create resentment, whereas the restorative way says we need to work with the kids from the inside out.
"We change the emotion, we change the behaviour."
WHAT IS RESTORATIVE JUSTICE:
Rather than focusing on placing blame, restorative practices look more at the issue as a whole, the events that transpired, who was harmed, what actions need to be taken to mend the situation, what lessons can be learned.
Restorative looks at social mistakes the same as academic ones.
"When you teach math, mistakes are inevitable; students are going to make math mistakes, they're going to make spelling mistakes," said Klop. "Well, if you look at behavioural, social mistakes in the same way, these kids made some poor choices, so we need to help them see who they impacted."
In Chilliwack, over a five-year period, the school district reported 371 drugs and alcohol related incidents for students in grades 8-12; 93 of which were in the 2012-13 school year.
School district officials did not break those numbers down further to show how many of those incidents had resulted in expulsions.
"What this points to," said assistant superintendent Rohan Arul-Pragasam, "is that there's a need for the community to try and support kids in a larger scale."
Research has proven the benefits of restorative practices in schools.
A 2004 study in the UK, commissioned by the Youth Justice Board, reported schools operating under restorative practices experienced fewer instances of name-calling, bullying, physical harm, theft, threats and truancy.
A similar study in Scotland showed significant improvements in 17 of 18 schools surveyed after two years of restorative practices being implemented. There was a reduction in playground incidents, referrals for discipline and suspension, an increase in attendance, a decrease in expulsions, staff morale had improved, and students felt more positive about their school experiences.
In Canada, Nova Scotia is leading the way with restorative practices in schools – thanks in large part to a buy in from not only the school districts, but also from the government, community and university partnerships.
Yet, most other school districts in the country shy away from adopting a full-restorative approach in dealing with discipline.
"Restorative justice is certainly a topic of interest and one that schools wrestle with constantly," said Annette Vogt, coordinator of the University of the Fraser Valley's Centre for Safe Schools and Communities.
"It's on the back of a school system that hasn't changed a lot in the last 100 years. It's an alternative to punishment that sometimes flies in the face of what schools will do in their expeditious ways."
RESTORATIVE VS. PUNITIVE:
Restorative practices take time.
They require both staff and student training. They involve talking circles, intensive conversations, questions, answers, and explanations to get to the meat of the issue, and work to solve it. They are not five-minute solutions.
"It takes more time and is certainly less appealing in that way," said Vogt.
However, zero-tolerance policies also have drawbacks.
"Zero tolerance is based on a belief that punishing kids changes behaviours, that kids are going to avoid doing certain things if they're punished, but all the research shows it actually exacerbates that type of behaviour," said Vogt.
"It's a temporary fix that generally makes problems worse over time – it's not effective at all."
Ten years ago, Langley school district became one of the few districts in B.C. to adopt a full-district restorative model. And while it doesn't have statistics on whether restorative action has reduced disciplinary incidents, it has seen "intangible positive results."
Susan Perkins, vice principal at Langley Fine Arts school, is quick to defend the model in the face of naysayers.
Restorative action doesn't mean students get off scot free, said Perkins.
"There's no reason why restorative action can't work in tandem with other consequences," she said.
"The restorative process that sometimes gets ignored is that you're working for a change of heart on the part of the person that's made the mistake. And so, it isn't enough for them to just say sorry. It can go hand-in-hand with some kind of consequence that may be appropriate."
But can the adults of a school community, including parents, wrap their heads around that concept?
Parents are often the ones leading the punishment charge.
If their children are victims, they want to see "a pound of flesh," and "blood on the floor," – both comments made to teachers.
"Parents can often be the pressure against trying new things that are research based," said Vogt. "A lot of parents want to see punishment, they want retaliation.
"Schools need to be supported by their boards, and the government, to take risks."
Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld, who's been working with restorative practices since 1978 in his role as a probation officer, has spent several years trying to get a restorative model approved in the Chilliwack school district.
He's had a long history with restorative action.
Neufeld was employed as a restorative youth justice facilitator for the Ministry of Child and Family Development; he was one of the founding members for both the Chilliwack and Abbotsford Restorative Justice and Youth Advocacy Associations; headed the provincial group RAISN (Restorative Action In Schools Network); has worked restoratively with both adult and young offenders; and has been an active participant in talking circles at Chance alternate school.
"I've seen it work," said Neufeld.
"As enlightened educators, if we want kids to graduate, some of these kids will take extra time and effort to get them through to Grade 12 – we can't just boot them out the door."
Neufeld, who's working on a district-wide proposal for the implementation of a restorative action program in Chilliwack, believes restorative measures will create better, well-rounded citizens for the future.
"If we're wanting to turn out people who can do a better job at running the world than the people we've got now, I think we have to do better at educating them around how to deal with conflict," said Perkins.
Said Vogt, "because restorative justice uses conflict as an opportunity to learn, rather than exclude children, it creates a more democratic model for society."