Twilight for campus legal codes?
Talking circles aid the aftermath of destructively drunk students and more.by Bonnie Price Lofton of Eastern Mennonite University
After more than a decade of ushering misbehaving students at James Madison University (JMU), Harrisonburg, Va., through hearings, sanctions and other legalistic steps, Josh Bacon wanted a change.
"I went into educational leadership and student affairs because I cared about young adults and their futures," he says. "But that’s not how they perceived me—they saw me as the 'bad guy,' somebody there to enforce the university's rules, somebody who wasn’t on their side.'
Seeking a fresh approach, Bacon signed up for a restorative justice course at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, taught by an internationally recognized pioneer in the restorative justice field, Howard Zehr.
Even before the semester-long course was over, Bacon was applying restorative justice principles and techniques to cases referred to JMU’s Office of Judicial Affairs, which he directs. In the last 18 months, Bacon has offered students the option of participating voluntarily in "restorative justice circles" about 20 times. All concerned—the errant student, the people harmed by the student’s actions, community members affected by the incident, such as campus police or residence hall members—have found it to be an overwhelmingly positive experience, says Bacon.
Bacon's fresh but effective approach to discipline caught the attention of colleagues at JMU. As a result, 20 JMU officials joined 50 administrators from 11 other universities at a March 15 symposium offered by the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at EMU. About half this group returned to EMU for the next three full days to undergo intensive training. The leaders of these trainings offered multiple examples from their universities of handling destructively drunken students, vandalism, plagiarism, theft, assault, interpersonal conflict and noise issues through circles and other restorative justice processes. Bacon’s preferred process—a restorative justice circle—is not complicated, though it does require a trained facilitator, preferably with a gift for handling sensitive interactions.
To illustrate the circle process, let us start with a composite situation that would be readily recognizable to university officials: a 20-year-old sophomore living in a residence hall gets drunk at an off-campus party. He then joy-drives around the university’s baseball field, leaving deep tire marks. He tops off his evening by vomiting in the lobby of his dormitory. Called by campus police, the city police come and arrest the sophomore for vandalism and underage drinking.
This "offender" is the son of a lawyer, who proceeds to look for holes in the evidence against his son, fearing his son’s suspension or expulsion, not to mention police record. The father advises his son to admit nothing about the incident. Members of the baseball team begin sending the son angry emails and posting blog attacks because they can't practice on their home field or host home games while new sod is being put down on the damaged parts of their field. The son begins to be afraid of being attacked by baseball players, when he can’t even recall driving across their field.
In the past, Bacon would have felt trapped in the legal issues of the case. Was a breath test given and what were the results? Is this the sophomore's first offense? What is the cost of repairing the baseball field? But answering these questions would make nobody feel any better or motivated to change.
Today, this is what Bacon would do in such a case. He would contact each person affected by the incident—from the student himself to the person who cleaned up the vomit. He would offer each person the opportunity to participate in a restorative justice process whereby everyone would sit together and consider what harms were done by this incident and what could be done to "put things right." Everything would be confidential and could not be used in judicial proceedings.
Each person would speak in turn, using the "talking piece," initially telling his or her story. As each person speaks in successive rounds of the circle, the speakers usually move from how they were affected by the offense to exploring ways that the harm can be healed or mitigated. In such a setting, the sophomore no longer has any reason to minimize his role. He can explain that he was undergoing an initiation into a club and was urged to keep drinking even after he felt he had enough. His designated driver abandoned him, so he tried to get home on his own. And he loves baseball—he comes to all the games. He never meant to do anything to hurt the team.
Then Bacon would lead the circle to consider next steps. These may include a loan from Dad to pay for resodding the baseball field that the son will repay by working on the university’s grounds crew for the summer, volunteering to staff the baseball concession stand during home games so more funds could be retained by the team, and helping the residence-hall cleaners on weekends when they are shorthanded.
Of the 20 circles he has facilitated so far, Bacon says none have failed to yield positive outcomes. At the rate things are going, Bacon dreams of changing the name of his workplace from the "Office of Judicial Affairs" to the "Make Things Right Office."
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