Restorative conferencing: what it is, why it works

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Phillip Schaedler

In the 2014-15 school year there were 1300 expulsions from Michigan schools. More than than 50% of those expulsions lasted more than 180 calendar days, over half the school year.

Students who are expelled or suspended often struggle academically, are more likely to drop out, get in trouble, and may eventually end up in prison.

The Michigan Revised School Code sent the message we didn’t care enough to teach students to learn from their mistakes. A 2016 change in state law changed this approach.
The amendment encourages schools to implement restorative practices, which can take various forms of conflict resolution, where students (both offender and victim) talk through how their behavior affects others. MCL 380.1310c(2) provides that”…2) Restorative practices may include victim-offender conferences… that provide an opportunity for the offender to accept responsibility for the harm caused to those affected by the misconduct and to participate in setting consequences to repair the harm.”

Previously, the Michigan statute provided for mandatory, permanent expulsion under certain circumstances. Under the new state law, public school administrators and board of education trustees are required to consider the following factors before expelling or suspending a student: age, disciplinary history, disability, seriousness of behavior, whether the behavior posed a safety risk, whether restorative practices have been utilized and whether a lesser intervention would address the behavior.

MCL 380.1310d(1). To comply, school systems throughout the state have implemented or are in the process of implementing restorative conferencing programs.

The restorative conference involves the use of scripted conferences to create the ideal setting for healthy human relationships.  Conferencing requires acknowledgement of wrongdoing on the part of the offender. It encourages free expression of affect (enjoyment/joy, interest/excitement, surprise/startle, shame/humiliation, distress/anguish, disgust, fear/terror, anger/rage dismell [a made-up word to describe a profound physical reaction such as to a putrid odor]) the biological basis for emotion and feelings. The conference allows expression of true feelings, while minimizing negative affect and maximizing positive affect.

The essentials of the restorative conference script are as follows:

To respond to challenging behavior the offender is asked;

1. What happened?

2. What were you thinking at the time?

3. What have you thought about since?

4. Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way?

5. What do you think you need to do to make things right?

To help those harmed by the other’s actions we ask;

1. What did you think when you realized what had happened?

2. What impact has this incident had on you and others?

3. What has been the hardest thing for you?

4. What do you think needs to happen to make things right?

The script uses open-ended questions that encourage the expression of all nine basic affects, helping reduce their intensity.

In a safe and structured environment created by strict adherence to the script, both victim and offender, along with supporters, experience a transition characterized by the neutral affect of surprise. Participants feel better about the situation and move toward an agreement phase expressing positive affects of interest and enjoyment.

MCL 320.1310c provides that a restorative practices team may require the student to do one or more of the following: apologize; participate in community service, restoration, or counseling; or pay restitution. The selected consequences shall be incorporated into an agreement that sets time limits for completion and is signed by all participants.

 As the conference progresses participants recognize the affects seen on other participant’s faces and tend to respond with the same affect, a phenomenon called “affective resonance” or empathy. They make the emotional journey together, feeling each other’s feelings as they travel from anger and distress to interest and enjoyment.

The above description is a simplified description of a process that deals with the shame of wrongdoing in a fundamentally different way. Restorative practice provides meaningful reintegration rather than imposing traditional systems of punishment that humiliate without offering a way to make amends. Restorative practice avoids labeling that stigmatizes and alienates. The offender is not pushed out of the community but reintegrated into it, avoiding isolation into a negative subculture outside the mainstream and prone to persistent trouble.

Reintegration involves separating the deed from the doer so that society disapproves of the inappropriate behavior, but acknowledges the intrinsic worth of the individual. The restorative process focuses on what the offender did and how that unacceptable behavior affected others not on whether the offender is a good or bad person.

Experience since the amendment of the school code demonstrates that where administration and staff have embraced the concept of restorative conferencing, as well as other alternative dispute resolution techniques, such as restorative circles and peer-to-peer mediation, a dramatic reduction in suspensions, expulsions and aberrant behaviors occurs.
Where time is taken to “teach” students expected behaviors and work with them in positive, encouraging and supportive ways, rather than subject them to traditional discipline, communities reap enormous benefits. If this approach is used in the early elementary stage, even more dramatic results will occur.

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The founding member of Schaedler & Lacasse, PC in Adrian, Phillip Schaedler began his legal career with the defense litigation law firm of Janes & Hall P.C. in Mt. Pleasant. In 1984, he began a 20-year career in the health care and insurance industry and has been a national leader in the area of health care risk management and alternative risk finance and on the forefront of alternative dispute resolution techniques in the health care industry. Schaedler served on the board of the Family Mediation Council – Michigan for many years, and still serves on the State Bar Alternative Dispute Resolution Council. He is a member the American Bar Association, the Federation of Defense and Corporate Council, a member, fellow and former board member of the American Society of Health Care Risk Management and a certified professional healthcare risk manager. His practice centers on ADR in both general civil and domestic relations cases. He is a trained practitioner in facilitative, and evaluative mediation and arbitration as well as collaborative law. A Charter member of Professional Resolution Experts of Michigan Inc. (PREMi), he recently completed certification at the International Institute for Restorative Practices.
 

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