OP-ED: Restorative Justice Isn’t Fluff, It’s an Investment in the Future

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The argument escalated during lunch in the cafeteria. The 15-year-old boy who threw the first punch made a loud comment about the 16-year-old’s tattoo and threw a hard right. The older boy went down hard but came up swinging and the other students crowded around and yelled encouragement to one or the other combatant. Luckily, there was security present, and the guards quickly intervened, separated the boys and took them out of the lunchroom.

Deciding what to do about this kind of behavior is a question pondered by many.  In juvenile justice circles, I often hear repeated comments that go something like this: “Schools just call the cops. Many have stated policies that teachers and administrators cannot intervene physically and suspension or expulsion is required. These policies widen the net for the juvenile justice system leading to prosecution, detention — and sometimes prison.”

Another comment recited in conversation is that it “used to be that a teacher broke up fights, referred the students to the principal for ‘the talk’ and for parental notification, and that ended school involvement.” Of course, the reason for the conflict might not be addressed, and conflict often continues. The trauma of a physical battle might linger for a lifetime.

Some search for better responses to this type of situation, and I recently learned of a good result in an Illinois institution. An administrator contacted a community group which has trained mediators experienced in attempting to resolve conflict in just this type of fight. They agreed to consider an intervention.

The group began its work by researching the incident through the administrator’s records and by phoning the staff who witnessed the scuffle. The mediators wanted to know who was involved, any background information and the environment at the time of the fight. They learned that it was a normal lunchtime; many peers of each of the boys were sitting at adjacent tables and that all could hear the trash talk between the 15- and 16-year-old fighters. Neither boy knew the other except as fellow students. The audience to the fight included friends of both combatants, and their friends quickly came to attention and seemed ready to fight.

The immediate action by a security guard saved the event from becoming a brawl, and the boys were quickly removed to separate rooms in the building until the administrator could be summoned. They were not allowed to interact with each other or their friends until the mediation took place.

The community group agreed to the mediation and came to the site twice — first to get to know the boys individually and then to conduct a face-to-face meeting. They brought lunch from McDonald’s and talked for a couple of hours each time.

They learned that the offending tattoo communicated disrespect to the family of the younger boy, and that the older boy did not realize how the tattoo could be offensive. At the joint session, the boys responded to the mediator’s questions and rather quickly were able to communicate their feelings.

They reached an agreement: An apology was offered and accepted, and the boys jointly asked to be allowed to walk back to population together with just one guard. Yes, back to the “population.” You see, this school is in a juvenile prison, the “families” were gangs. If this had happened on the street, this conflict would have been settled with weapons and bloodshed. In prison, the risks include continued escalation and simmering hatred. Instead, these boys learned something about how to make it through life.

The staff learned something too — that brain science is real. Teenagers have little capacity for reasoned judgment; react with very little impulse control; have little ability to weigh consequences and even their limited constraints are quickly overrun by peer influence.

The big picture is that restorative justice practiced by trained mediators is not touch-feely fluff. It is a response to the known traits of adolescents and young adults. If we can recognize and describe behavior motivated by internal cognitive/emotional conditions, we can respond appropriately — not with “treatment” but with a human response to kids’ actions. It resolves conflict and teaches young people positive ways to deal with life.

The mediator spent about 45 hours in research, travel and relationship-building. I think that those hours reflect a wise investment when compared to interrupted education, emotional turmoil and months or years of continued incarceration. Restorative Justice is better for kids, for taxpayers and for potential victim. That’s not “fluffy.” It is good judgment.

4 thoughts on “OP-ED: Restorative Justice Isn’t Fluff, It’s an Investment in the Future

  1. Thank you Judge Timberlake for taking the time to write about how restorative justice works. Brain science IS real, but you must have skilled mediators who can guide youth. If responsible adults set the conditions for social and emotional learning, then youth will rise to the level of our expectations. Community safety must move away from the current punitive approach.

  2. having someone on school grounds fulltime would require pay. too many people do this work and are not justly compensated. But they are desperately needed yet some kind of budget set a side to pay them is not in the plans. Sure a vendor number can get them to have a program on campus but what they really could use is, like you said, someone there fulltime.

    Great job to the mediators

  3. This is a great story. It is interesting that 45 hours of work went into this conflict. This is a good argument for schools having a restorative justice person at the school all the time. That way they have a feel for the climate and get to know the staff and students ahead of time.

  4. I enjoy all the reports and will utilize the information. I have witnessed so much injustice against children, I wonder if the Judges and public defenders are working for the prosecutor. A young man I know was convicted even when the video proved him innocent.