Conference Summary 2014:
A Restorative Justice Approach to Rebuild Civility and Respect on Campus
Tom Sebok Natalie Sharpe
University of Colorado, Boulder University of Alberta
There is an ongoing debate in the Restorative Justice (RJ) world on how far the “restorative justice tent” can be expanded before the concept becomes too diluted.  Howard Zehr says there is no “blueprint”; RJ builds from the ‘“bottom up”, through community dialogue and experimentation (to assess needs, resources, and tailor to cultural and other considerations).  Can universities move incrementally toward exploring a wider practice of RJ for dealing with disputes and harm?
At a CCCUO Asilomar workshop in 2014, Tom Sebok and Natalie Sharpe explored the potential for RJ’s expansion in the university community to resolve a wider range of academic and power conflicts. The goals of the session were to: define RJ and examine its basic principles; to examine the elements of the RJ process as it began at University of Colorado, Boulder; to explore the values that RJ process brings to the community. They explored how these RJ principles could be applied in a case of research lab conflict.
What is Restorative Justice? In the university world, discipline is focused on what rules have been broken, who broke the rule, and identifying the appropriate sanction. RJ, however, focuses on who is hurt, what is needed to repair the harm, and who is obligated to do the repair. Harm extends beyond the immediate victim to their community and damages to interpersonal relationships. The offender acknowledges s/he is the cause of the harm and wants to make redress. RJ reinforces educational goals; it is a voluntary process where the offender learns how his/her behavior harmed the parties(s). By listening and learning about the harm he/she caused, the process moves away from blaming and shaming, to stimulate positive change in the offender’s behavior. The offender is responsible for repairing harm(s) to restore trust and make the community whole again. The process takes time to allow for a deeper examination into why the behavior occurred, and how it harmed. The focus throughout the process is an ethic of care to nurture all participants; it is more holistic in scope than any other judicial process and reinforces educational goals and community values.
Sebok showed how the University of Colorado – Boulder RJ program functioned initially. This is the first RJ program on a North American university campus; it provides an alternative way to deal with problems like vandalism and other student transgressions on campus (e.g. residences) and surrounding Boulder community. Sebok recounted his role as a RJ facilitator at the Boulder campus. He described the community group conferencing (CGC) format where everyone sits in a circle. Sebok explained how the offender is moved from an isolated sanction that teaches nothing about community values, to an inclusive CGC environment that involves those affected by the harm.
Sebok as the facilitator introduces the parties and states that the purpose is not to judge people’s character. This is an open and caring process with no arbiter to sanction a sentence. Rather, the parties go back to the time of the incident and explore what they were doing and thinking. This is important for the offender who might say that s/he was not thinking about the consequences, including how many others would experience the harm. An important part of the process is that the offender understands this is not about making excuses to one’s community; it is about being accountable when learning about the impact of one’s negative behavior on others. The process includes one support person for the offender and another one for the victim. These individuals are typically mentors, friends, or family members. Finally, the process includes affected community members who also have a role to play in the healing process. The importance of community cannot be understated, as members may feel harmed by damage to the reputation, or to the safety and well-being of their community.
A CGC is powerful in the way it is facilitated; it is conducted with respectful language, it is safe, everyone is face-to-face; they see each other as fellow humans, and they can comfort each other. Everyone has a voice in the process; each speaks in turn, saying what they need to repair the harm. CGC is a learning process and helps to empower and reconnect the community.
In Sebok’s view, expanding RJ principles in universities requires a major paradigm shift in the institutional culture. While universities rely on complex tribunal systems to mete out sanctions how can we persuade them to shift to thinking about rebuilding relationships at the university? To address this question, Sebok and Sharpe introduced a case of a research lab team breakdown. A promising graduate student has shifted her allegiance from one supervisor to another due to differing approaches to research and a “personality” conflict. From that point on, the lab work environment changes from a happy, collegial team to a divided, competitive, untrusting research group. Still, years later, the student completes her degree and publishes articles. The abandoned supervisor feels the student never properly accredited others in her thesis and publications; he launches a formal complaint to have the student sanctioned by the university. A long investigation exonerates the student, whose only request is an apology from the former supervisor. But there is nothing in place to make an apology happen.
This case simulates how relationships break down in academia over competitive research, and perpetuates negative power dynamics, resulting in destructive behaviors of accusing and bullying. The potential for rebuilding relationships is difficult when traditional grievance and sanctioning processes focus on whether rules were broken or not, and follow with punishment – or nothing. The process ostracizes and alienates the lab members, adding to the dysfunction; apologies and amends to restore are rare.
Sebok said he was acutely aware of the power differences that inhibit the use of RJ to resolve these harms. However, he challenged ombuds to think outside the box instead of saying it can’t work at my institution. Sebok and Sharpe opened group discussions of the case, applying the power and creativity of RJ. 1) Identify the harms: who is responsible for repairing these harms or who might be able to? 2) What system or other barriers do you see for using a restorative approach to deal with the graduate student’s case? 3) What might compel the abandoned supervisor that it is in his best interest to participate in a RJ process? 4) What would you do as an ombudsman to encourage such barriers to be seen, their impacts to be understood, and overcome, so that an RJ option might be more likely?
There remains a perception that university bureaucracies are cold and uncaring, focused on punishing rather than healing. Yet many in the university community reject this view as inevitable and yearn for a kinder, caring university. Howard Zehr says that respect is the important human value guiding RJ; the restorative tent can be expanded with respectful dialogue. Ombuds can play a key role in rebuilding a culture of civility, responsibility, and respect on campuses; the dialogue has begun.
Sharpe, S. (2004) How Large Should the Restorative Justice “Tent” Be?, pp. 17 – 34, In: Critical Issues in Restorative Justice, Howard Zehr and Barb Toews ed. (2004) Criminal Justice Press
Zehr, H. (2002:2015) The Little Book of Restorative Justice Good Books
Zehr, H. and Toews, B. ed. (2004), Critical Issues in Restorative Justice Criminal Justice Press
Zehr, H. with Gohar, A. (2015) The Little Book of Restorative Justice: 2015 Uni-Graphics Peshawar http://www.unicef.org/tdad/littlebookrjpakaf.pdf
 Sharpe, S. (2004) pp. 17 - 31
 Zehr, H. (2015) pp. 8-9
 ibid: 19-20
 Restorative Justice Program University of Colorado – Boulder (Video 2000)
 Howard Zehr, 2004