Some years ago I came across an intriguing student/parent handbook from a Christian school. In addition to the regular and expected content about the school’s vision, its policies, communications procedures and the like, the handbook contained a multiple-page section on the school’s expectations for student behavior. What intrigued me about this section was the fact that it listed, in great detail, examples of unacceptable student behavior, from “minor” infractions (such as failing to bring a notebook to class or being late for school in the morning), to “major” infractions (such as fighting on the school grounds, being disrespectful to teachers, or issues related to smoking, drugs, and alcohol). Each infraction, from minor to major, was accompanied by the prescribed punishment for the offense. These punishments ranged from in-school detentions to short-term suspensions or even permanent expulsion from the school. A student would know, from studying this list, exactly what punishment would be meted out for any offense that might be contemplated.
When I asked about how this “discipline” policy was actually implemented, I was pointed to the connection between the list of offenses and the list of punishments, and was told that the system was simple. If a student was guilty of a listed offense, the listed punishment was applied. When I inquired about the consideration of extenuating circumstances, I was told that to consider such circumstances would introduce too many gray areas into the expectations of student behavior and would result in inconsistencies of enforcement and confusion among staff, students, and parents.
I was never able to visit the school to see this policy in operation over an extended period, so I do not know if and how such a policy could be applied. The handbook and the subsequent conversation, however, left me deeply uncomfortable. It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that such a simplified system of offenses and punishments does nothing to encourage students to reflect on their responsibilities, or to encourage the kinds of conversations that can lead to the growth in our students that we as educators hope to see. It also seems to me that a policy such as this, while apparently simple in its application, also does not take into account the complexity of the daily human interactions that occur in any school or the stories and experiences that are brought to the school by educators, students, and other school staff. As a wise friend said to me once, “The fight about the socks on the floor is never about the socks on the floor.” It should be obvious to any sensitive observer that the human collisions and conflicts that occur in a school almost always have roots and branches that stretch far beyond the actual collisions and conflicts themselves.
In this issue of the Christian Educators Journal, we are looking at the principles and practices of restorative justice in the settings of our schools. Restorative justice represents a movement that has gradually spread in school communities around the world in response to the growing acknowledgement that the kinds of policies I have described above simply do not achieve the deep results that we hope for in Christian schools. And although such punishment-based practises may seem simpler and more efficient, they do not honor the diversity of human characteristics and human experience that we celebrate in our communities. Restorative practices, as described in the articles in this issue, recognize the need that we all have, as God’s people, for encouragement, affirmation, and community. These practises do not allow people who violate the integrity of our Christian schools to avoid consequences. In fact, they deliver those consequences in a way that honors all the members of the community, and that has the potential to bring healing and grace to those affected by the brokenness and pain that exists in all of us and in all of our communities.
The articles in this issue are offered by people who have thought deeply about restorative practices in schools and who have, in many cases, struggled with the ambiguities and complexities of dealing with offenders in restorative ways. Several of the articles include suggestions for further reading and reflection. You are encouraged to use the information presented as a way of beginning (or expanding) conversations with colleagues, parents, and school communities, as a way of making our Christian schools places where the shalom, the grace, and the healing that we as the people of God are invited to enjoy are made more concrete and effective for all.