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Seeking Proactive Restorative Justice in the Discliplinary System
Sarah Jung '20 Associate Editor
May 23, 2018
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When students skip “boring” Academy Events, miss curfew, or perhaps drink under peer pressure, they know what they’re risking, and what will happen next. If they are caught, Deerfield will respond with APs or some sort of sanction determined by the Disciplinary Committee. The question lies in whether our current disciplinary process and the school climate it creates is really the best template for self-reflection or learning, as Mr. Kelly, Dean of Students, suggests,  to live “healthy, productive” future lives.

Mr. Kelly said that the main objective of the school’s disciplinary process is not to punish students, but to help them “stop, think, and reflect on their decision making, which hopefully, will produce healthy, productive, young adult lives after they leave us.”

There is no doubt that the school administration wishes to support the student body even when individual students make mistakes. But taking steps to implement a stronger restorative justice model would more effectively support students when they make wrong choices.

Credit: Madeline Lee

While the DC and Academic Honor Committee aim for transparency and consistency in making decisions, some students perceive that certain students are favored over others. Some cases receive a mere letter of warning and never reach a hearing, and this too can cause confusion in the student body. As a result, students question the fairness of the system. Students continue to break the rules, perhaps because they are unclear of where the boundaries lie, or because they feel less obligation to their peers and to the faculty with whom they collaborate each day, as relationships grow farther apart. This sentiment directly impacts not just the student response to the DC and AHC at Deerfield, but also affects the premise of the Accountability Point system. Rather than helping in the endeavor to hold students accountable for their daily choices, APs serve as bank accounts. Students track the amount of “credit” they own, then skip sit-down dinners and school meetings to finish their studies, knowing that they still have several free APs left to use later in the term.

Students must learn to think relationally rather than transactionally, respect mutual interest rather than self-interest, and give rather than get. Given that fear of punishment and getting caught has become the only incentive for students to attend school obligations, the school might stop to ask if changing our transactional system in favor of a system that fosters building stronger interpersonal relationships is necessary. Perhaps a pervasive spirit of receiving from the Academy without the compunction to give back, as well as lack of moral scruples from the student body explains the steady stream of DC and AHC responses this school year.

However, not all of the blame rests on the students. The administration should be asking itself if students are truly responding to and learning from our current disciplinary responses in a positive and constructive way. Even from the numerous DC and AHC announcements at school meetings, it seems that the number of students changing their mindsets and desiring to follow the rules is slim. In fact, I have heard many students claim that hearing about an anonymous student’s suspension for plagiarizing, or a group of students’ expulsions for drugs instills more fear of getting caught than determination to stop breaking school rules.

Thus, the largest problem with disciplinary responses is not necessarily that they are punitive, but that they address the mistakes of students one by one after they are already committed, rather than proactively address the underlying problem of the apathetic student culture.

The solution lies in gearing the school towards an instilled restorative justice approach. Restorative justice is defined as a system that rehabilitates offenders through reconciliation with victims of the offense and with the larger community. It brings together the persons harmed with persons responsible for harm and encourages accountability through dialogue, rather than through the serving of a sanction or consequence.

The short term fix of handing out a suspension or expulsion might teach the student who committed a wrongdoing to learn from their mistake. Yet it focuses only on the rule that was broken and allots a corresponding response to it based largely on precedent. It does not target the root causes, repair damaged relationships, or deter recurrence.

It is important to acknowledge that the school does already aim to incorporate particular restorative practices in its disciplinary responses. According to 11th and 12th Grade Dean Samuel Bicknell, “[The committees] have introduced some common language used in restorative practice approaches. In preliminary conversations with members of the community who have violated the handbook and in the statements they write for DC hearings, we have started to ask the following questions: What happened? How were you feeling? Who do you think has been affected by what you did?” Yet our school does not practice restorative justice to its fullest capacity and could develop it much further, given our continued use of reactive sentences like suspensions that do not solve the underlying problems in school culture.

Steps toward truly implementing a restorative system would include hiring a restorative justice coordinator, training as many employees (teachers, administration, counselors and security officers) as possible, and integrating the restorative conversation techniques learned from the training in the dining hall, classrooms, dorms, and locker rooms. From there, the restorative justice coordinator or an administrator could begin to incorporate it into disciplinary responses, and inspire students to dialogue rather than irresponsible action. Suppose an upperclassman was caught with drugs in his dorm room. Instead of receiving a suspension, the student might meet weekly with counselors at the Health Center over a period spanning several weeks to give the student an opportunity to rehabilitate and change their mindset on drugs. Teachers and dorm residents could offer more support and further encouragement towards making healthy choices. Rather than relying on the looming consequence of suspension, this approach improves the student, as well as the larger culture and community of our school.

Restorative justice is not only an alternative to our current disciplinary approach, but a strategy to mold a stronger, connected and caring culture. In an ideal community, Deerfield would not need the AP system, probations or expulsions.

The collective community must learn to respond to the student by encouraging personal growth and rediscovery of our values. Only then can every student at Deerfield live up to the motto, “Be Worthy.”