How can restorative justice practices used by countries after periods of disruption help reduce bad behavior in our schools?
Restorative justice has gotten a lot of attention on the international stage – with bodies like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission playing a large role in trying to foster a sense of national unity after a tumultuous period.
But restorative practices are gaining traction at much more local levels, right here in the Milwaukee community, in places you might not imagine – like Milwaukee Public Schools.
"The bottom line of it is about building those relationships of trust and empathy and caring, which hopefully minimizes the violence," says MPS social worker Sarah Kubetz.
She says through restorative practices, she tries to help students feel connected with their peers, simply by the virtue of being human beings.
"The focus is on how do we help students know each other as people so that they won't want to harm each other in the first place, so if they do have a question about who did what or said what, they do have a way to address that," she says.
The goal, Kubetz explains, is to help students move past conflicts and prevent them from escalating. That's where Paul Dedinsky comes in - he's an assistant DA in the Milwaukee District Attorney’s office who works in violence prevention with MPS.
He says courts often use restorative justice practices to hold offenders accountable for their actions.
"It's about sometimes putting people eye-to-eye...not just with the judge, but sometimes with someone's been harmed, sometimes with peers in the community," Dedinsky says. He notes that some offenses like sexual assault would not be appropriate for restorative justice tactics.
Dedinsky and Kubetz are both involved with planning an upcoming conference on the issue of seeking greater community harmony after a period of conflict or harm. It's being sponsored by the UW-Milwaukee Center for Urban Initiatives and Research, which has studied the effectiveness of restorative practices in schools.
Center researcher and conference planner Scott Davis says these methods can address everything from classroom disruptiveness to bullying to fighting to truancy. In comparing schools using restorative practices with those that don't, Davis says the results were "very interesting."
"This could be very promising," he says. "We looked at disciplinary incidents - the behaviors of the youth in the school, and in terms of the restorative practices schools, they went down 49 percent."
That's compared with a decrease of only 15 percent at non-restorative practices schools.
The Center’s conference on restorative practices is scheduled for May 29.