Slouching Toward Bedlam

Just Desserts, or Crime and … Restorative Justice?

For our newer readers: “Slouching toward Bedlam” is a fictional column written by an imaginary columnist, Jan Karsvlaam. Bedlam Christian School is a lot like the school where you teach. The teachers you will find here are much like your own colleagues (and perhaps like you, too). To join in the fun, just read along. The characters are reintroduced in every episode.

School counselor Maxwell Prentiss-Hall was beginning to feel he had chewed off more than he could swallow (Maxwell had trouble remembering common sayings). He had agreed to lead the Bedlam faculty at their fall in-service so that he could introduce the new restorative justice practices that he hoped to bring to their approach to school discipline. The weather was hot, and the assembled teachers, fanning themselves in the stuffy gymnasium, looked no more excited to be there than their students would in another three days.

Max had started the presentation by defining terms, explaining the nature of restorative practices, and making the argument that philosophically the movement was much more in line with the Christian underpinnings of Bedlam than the traditional approach to school discipline. The more he talked, the more Max had the sensation that he was losing his audience.

When he started talking about the value of creating a student-run disciplinary board, phys ed teacher Rex Kane took out a small notebook and passed it to librarian Jon Kleinhut, who wrote something in it and passed it to shop teacher Gord Winkle. The three of them seemed to be paying no attention to Max. Instead, they kept jotting short notes on a pad of paper they passed back and forth, smirking whenever they saw the writing of whoever had possessed the pad previously.

As Max described the procedures faculty could follow to move a problem forward, math teacher Jane VanderAsch’s eyes began drifting closed. Soon her head was doing the nod-and-jerk as she unsuccessfully fought off sleep. Others looked bored or preoccupied. Only Jeffrey Hillard, the stentorian ex-marine who served as vice principal at Bedlam, appeared to be paying attention, but he also looked angrier with every passing moment.

And, in fact, he was. When Max had first brought the idea to the administration and school board, Hillard had spoken against it, fearing that it was another of Max’s hair-brained ideas to promote school spirit. Last year, Max had wanted all the faculty and staff to create facebook accounts so that they could befriend Bedlam’s students on the virtual level. The year before, he had suggested that each homeroom paint a plastic lawn chair with some design that reflected the theme, “Lord, make us chairs on the patio of your kingdom.” Now Max was all juiced for restorative practices.

Up front, Max cleared his throat uncomfortably and said, “I know that it is hot in here, so I’ll try to wrap it up pretty quickly, but I hope you all know how important this is, not just to us teachers but to our whole school community.”

No one responded, and Max’s dream probably would have died on the vine right there, killed by a terminal lack of interest, had not Hillard, unable to accept a victory that he didn’t earn, decided to speak. He rose to his feet and raised both hands over the group, striking a pose like Moses must have looked coming down from Sinai.

“You’re right, Max, this is important for our whole community. Going soft on misbehavior hurts the whole community. Letting kids talk their way out of trouble weakens the whole community. Pretending things are fine because we sat in a circle and sang ‘Bind Us Together’ destroys the structure of a community. If we do this, Max, Bedlam will become a shambles.”

Max took a deep breath. “To be fair, Jeffrey, I am not suggesting we go soft on misbehavior. Restorative practices are focused on righting wrongs and making things whole again.”

“You can dress it up however you want,” Hillard said, “The bottom line is, you are giving kids a way to wriggle out of what they have coming to them.” [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]