Not every student referred to a restorative justice program necessarily feels they’ve done something wrong. Even their parents may not feel so. This can be the case for a student charged with simple assault who feels they were only trying to defend themselves. In fact, in such situations the child may have done exactly what their parents had taught them to do. Recently we were referred a student who brought a taser to school (which is illegal) that their grandmother provided them for protection.
So how is restorative justice appropriate for these kids and/or their families? What exactly do they “restore” through their efforts? Well for these students we ask them to consider “restorative” the way we would think of a healthy drink, or even a brisk jog, an experience that restores health, well-being or instills a healthier perspective on things.
Many crimes have existed, and continue to exist, that are unjust, misguided or morally wrong. A no-tolerance statute for school fighting, even for kids who may have been defending themselves, may be one of these. But more importantly this law prevents kids from learning how to work more constructively through their conflicts. Schools and families, not the law, ought to teach this.
It also inhibits kids and families from understanding that many laws in history should never have been passed and that some were overturned because people violated them. Rosa Parks knew that by sitting in the front of the bus on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, that she was about to become a criminal. But then that action sparked The Civil Rights Movement.
The illegality of bringing a Swiss Army Knife to school may not be something worth protesting. However, the lesson that unjust or even frivolous laws have existed and continue to exist is a lesson worth learning. We elect the legislators who pass such legislation, but we can also vote them out.
They learn of the responsibility of the vote. They learn that some laws are worth protesting against, and that others are worth advocating for. They learn that physical altercations are never the best means of resolving a conflict, interpersonally or even internationally. They learn that however they choose to behave, they should be ready and willing to accept the consequences for that behavior.
They also learn that some consequences may not be worth the trouble. But like any of the youth referred to restorative justice programs, they learn how and why to exercise better judgment going forward.