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.”

Rex Kane, noticing that what had begun as a presentation was becoming a free-for-all, jumped in with his two cents. “Now, now, Hillard. Settle your mettle. I think young Maxwell here has a point. We have to choose our battles, and sometimes it just isn’t worth making a big deal when a kid does something wrong.”

“But, that isn’t really what I was saying …” Maxwell tried to clarify.

“I’ll tell you your problem, Hillard,” began Jon Kleinhut. “You are forgetting about the power of the lawsuit. One of these days you are going to be giving a kid what is coming to them and a parent is going to sue you right out of a job.”

“Are you saying you like this ‘Restorative Justice’ stuff?” Hillard practically shouted at them.

“I wouldn’t say that, exactly,” said Jon.

Jane VanderAsch seemed to have awakened. “Look, what difference does it make? You can call it whatever you want, Max, give us new terms and new labels. In the end, we all run our classrooms the way we always have. And kids will keep messing up and getting away with it.”

“Exactly my point,” thundered Hillard. “All you are doing is giving them more tools to escape what they have coming to them.”

A quiet voice came from the back. “You keep saying that, Hillard.” It was Red Carpenter, English teacher and golf coach. Because Red rarely spoke in faculty meetings, a hush fell over the room. “You keep saying you are going to give them what they have coming to them, but I gotta wonder about that. When I teach Hamlet to our seniors, we always read this line, ‘use every man after his dessert and who shall ’scape whipping.’ I think it is a very Christian line, or at the least a very Calvinist line. It means that we have to treat each other better than we deserve, because we all deserve to die for what we have done. Shouldn’t we be teaching our kids stuff like grace and forgiveness? And, no, Hillard, I don’t mean that we shouldn’t hold them accountable; I mean that we shouldn’t be looking for payback or revenge. We should be looking to help them to fix the wrong and guide them back to a right relationship with that person. Isn’t reconciliation the good news of the gospel? For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son, not to condemn the world but to save it. Couldn’t that kind of approach to justice be one way we are different from other schools?”

Maxwell smiled and took a deep breath. Perhaps his presentation was saved after all. Then Gord Winkle, Bedlam’s chubby shop teacher, stood up. Maxwell winced.

“Last June,” Gord began, a sad look in his eye, “I had pizza with the fishing club on the last day before exams began. Afterwards, we had one large pepperoni pizza left over, and I put it in the faculty room fridge for lunch the next day. But by lunch the next day, the pizza was gone. Only a grease-stained box with a bit of dried, melted cheese stuck to it remained behind.”

Gord paused, as if he were remembering his recently departed father. He sighed deeply, then looked around the room, trying to make eye contact with each of them individually before going on. “Listen, I know about injustice. And I think Maxie-boy has a point. What I really wanted last June was not someone being punished. Nor did I want a big ruckus. What I wanted was my pizza. I’d still take that. Whoever stole it, all I really want is an apology and a new pizza.”

Geoff Blanco, history teacher, looked sheepish as he cleared his throat. “Sorry, Gordo. I ate that. I thought anything in the faculty fridge was community goods. You should have labeled it or something.”

Gord looked almost apoplectic. Coming to the aid of his friend, Rex stood and turned to Blanco. “I don’t want this to escalate, but I have to say that you are lying and you know it, Geoff. We all, you included, put our lunches in that fridge every day without any special labeling. You knew that pizza wasn’t yours.”

In a rare moment, other teachers around the room nodded in full agreement with what Rex had said. Blanco turned red then said, “Yeah, I guess I knew it wasn’t mine. It just looked so good. I’m sorry, Gord. I really am. And this Friday, don’t pack a lunch. The pizza of your choice will be delivered piping hot and on me.”

Gord smiled. “Apology accepted.”

Max jumped up on his chair. “Holy cow!” he shouted. “That was like a perfect example of what I’ve been talking about. That was restorative practices in action.”

Hillard wasn’t done yet. “Yeah, yeah, okay. Very nice. Geoff has to spend his hard-earned money on the pizza, and Gord gets to stuff his face. But what about our students? Last year, that kid put a ball of aluminum foil in one of the microwave ovens and, by the time we put out the fire, it was pretty much destroyed. When I finally tracked down that it was that squirrelly Brandon Hippenheimer who had done it, I met with him and his parents and told them that he would have to earn the money to pay for it. Next day his dad brings in a shiny new microwave and Brandon salutes me in the hallway with a smirk. Now, you know that kid didn’t pay for that. How is that restorative, Max?”

Max started sweating. His mouth was dry. He had nothing to say.

“It’s not,” said Red. “Listen, we live in a broken world, so our attempts at restorative justice will be broken, too. If this restorative justice thing is going to work, we need to do a lot more talking and bring the parents into our discussion. I think you are right, Hillard. This won’t work unless everyone is on board. But even then, there will be times when things don’t work out the way we anticipate or hope. Welcome to life in a fallen world.”

“But in that fallen world,” said Max, “we join Christ in working toward reconciliation. Our King has promised, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Let’s take him at his word and try this.”

Max smiled what he hoped was a hopeful smile. Hillard glared back at him with a fixed frown. Clearly both of them had work to do in order to meet in the middle.