Love Is Louder Than Bullying: Why I Believe in Restorative Justice

Mother Teresa once said “If you hold an anti-war rally, I shall not attend.  If you hold a peace-rally invite me.”  As we approach Anti-Bullying day, I am hopeful that we will use the day to reflect and think of our own actions, and what we can do to model appropriate behavior.  I wish that we could re-frame the day with a new label, focusing on the behaviors we want to see.

As an educator I am hesitant to say I don’t like the term anti-bullying because I worry others will misunderstand my intention.  In no way do I support bullying behavior, however I am an advocate for positive approaches to behavior where the goal is to repair harm rather than assign blame.   Why?  I think Todd Whitaker answers it best in this video clip “What Great Teachers Do Differently”

Put simply, hurt kids will hurt other kids.  If we focus on punishing the child, we teach shame and the chance of that student hurting others rises.  When we label students as bullies we focus our efforts on determining who is guilty and who is innocent.  This stems from our criminal justice system so it is a natural way of thinking for most of us.  However, I challenge you to ask yourself this: Do you believe our criminal justice system strengthens individuals and helps improve their skills before reintegrating them into society? I’m assuming most of you will answer no.

Last Friday I had the privilege of presenting a workshop on Restorative Justice during a professional development conference.  As a teacher, counselor, parent and administrator I am a huge supporter or restorative approaches as a method of responding to behavior.  Restorative Justice is a model based on control theory, which centers around the belief that the only person’s behavior that we can truly control is our own.

To help explain the model, I will use a real example that I helped mediate between two students (though I will change the names).

Sally came to the office to report her wallet stolen from the school change room.  She hadn’t locked up her belongings and when she returned from PE her wallet was gone and her bus pass and money were missing.  After looking at the security cameras we developed a list of students who went in and out of the change room during that period.  Through conversation with Amy, a student who should not have been in the change room that block, we were able to determine that Amy had taken the wallet.

From a punitive perspective our goal would be to determine:

-What rule has been broken (respecting others property)

-Who is guilty? (Amy)

-What the consequence should be (likely a suspension)

From a restorative perspective our goal would be to determine:

-Who has been harmed? (Sally)

-What relationships have been damaged? (Sally and Amy’s, Amy and the school as trust has been broken, etc)

-How can relationships be repaired? (Amy taking responsibility, Amy accepting a related consequence, Amy understanding the impact her actions had on Sally and the school.

-How can Amy learn from this situation and return to the group strengthened?

In this particular situation, I will never forget the impact the mediation had.  Amy agreed to return the wallet, but had already spent the money.  She was in ministry care and struggled to come up with the funds.  Rather than having her re-pay Sally, the school offered to re-pay Sally while Amy volunteered time at the school to pay back the school.  Amy also met with our liaison officer to understand the severity of shoplifting or stealing from others.  However, the most powerful moment came when I brought the two girls together.  Amy was able to apologize for her actions, but also explain why she had made such a bad decision based on her financial situation.  Sally was able to accept the apology, but also explain to Amy that her family had struggled financially throughout her childhood.  She was able to explain the choices she had made rather than stealing.  Watching the girls talk openly, they were able to understand more about one another.  Sally got her money back and Amy was able to take responsibly and return to the group strengthened.  Amy did not steal from students again the rest of her days in high school.

Tomorrow is anti-bullying day.  I challenge you to see the day in a positive light. Remember that as adults, we are all teachers.  When we see bullying, let’s focus on the teachable moment to strengthen our children rather than focusing our energy on assigning blame.  As coined by the Coquitlam School District, “Love is Louder Than Bullying”.

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