Most states have adopted punishment as the primary tool for stopping bullying. In contrast, no state requires that schools utilize restorative justice in their efforts to reduce bullying. Restorative justice focuses on making victims whole and rehabilitating offenders through a reconciliation process that involves these parties as well as the community at large. Victim-offender dialogue, community/school conferencing, and victim impact panels are used to determine why the harm occurred, who should be responsible for repairing the harm, and how to make the victim whole.
Various schools and state criminal justice systems across the nation have begun using restorative justice in contexts other than bullying. In Oakland, since a restorative justice model has been implemented to address the school-to-prison pipeline, suspension rates have dropped and students feel a stronger sense of community at school. Massachusetts has started approaching certain criminal offenses with restorative justice and has experienced a decrease in recidivism as a result.
States should amend their anti-bullying laws to provide for both restorative justice and punitive measures. While punishment has deterrence benefits, unlike a restorative justice model, it fails to address the underlying causes of bullying.
Bullying is often driven by stresses in the bully’s world, such as strained parental relationships, low self-esteem, poor academic performance, fear of being left out of the “in group,” or exposure to violence. Exerting power over others allows bullies to feel better about themselves and comes easy to bullies as they are often adept at blinding themselves from the pain they cause their victims. Rather than address bullies’ feelings of inferiority or foster a sense of empathy towards victims, punishment stokes the anger that bullies feel and perpetuates the cycle of bullying.
...Restorative justice treats the wrongdoer as a human being that made a mistake and seeks to understand the reasons for the wrongdoer’s behavior. During the restorative justice process, bullies would be able to discuss their feelings with an audience that cares about their well being, providing them with an opportunity to address the issues causing them to bully. Part of the team’s proposal for holding the bully accountable can also incorporate measures, such as counseling, that help address the bully’s personal struggles. In addition, by forcing bullies to confront the pain and sadness they cause, the process would make them more empathetic.
Restorative justice also provides a learning opportunity for school officials. Listening to bullies and victims’ respective stories, school officials would gain new insights into what causes bullying, how to intervene when bullying arises, and what measures can be taken to prevent bullying. Such a dialogue would also demonstrate to school officials the seriousness of our bullying problem.
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