In just three years, Josh Bacon has mobilized some 50 administrators and staff members in nearly a dozen departments sprawled across the 665-acre campus of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, to embrace restorative justice practices when dealing with each other and with students.
Bacon says it is not a difficult “sell.” One person gets hooked on restorative justice and tells another person and soon a group evolves to attend a restorative justice short seminar, with some continuing to multiple-day trainings.
“The point is, RJ [restorative justice] works,” says Bacon. “And lots of other interventions used for years with students don’t.”
Here’s how Bacon himself came to RJ:
After more than a decade of ushering misbehaving students at JMU through hearings on their conduct, sanctions, and other legalistic steps, Josh Bacon was ready for a change in 2009.
“I went into educational leadership and student affairs because I cared about young adults and their futures,” he says. “But that’s not how they perceived me – they saw me as the ‘bad guy,’ somebody there to enforce the university’s rules, somebody who wasn’t on their side.”
So he took a course at EMU with restorative justice pioneer Howard Zehr. Before the semester was even over, he started applying Zehr’s teachings to his student judicial work.
“One of the biggest oversights in my [previous] work was not engaging the victim; my office was almost entirely offender focused,” recalls Bacon.
Bacon found that he saw astonishing results if he asked the victims of offenses, the perpetrators of them, and affected community members to sit in a facilitated circle and, one by one, share their thoughts on the harms done and the ways those harms could be “put right.”
“I’ve been amazed by how these circles work,” he says. “I’ve never felt so connected to people. It’s almost magical, spiritual, sitting in a circle, passing a talking piece, listening carefully to each other, going deeper. Every one of the students has risen to the occasion.”
Bacon has used restorative justice processes with 20 cases so far – “I keep waiting to see when one will go bad”– from a couple of guys in a fight, to 15 people occupying an entire dormitory floor who needed to sort some problems out.
Here’s an example of a relatively simple case handled by Bacon:
There were these two students who knew each other as freshmen. Fueled by alcohol, one guy assaulted the other.
A year later, the victim contacted me, only coming forward because he had heard about restorative justice. He didn’t want a judicial proceeding; he just wanted to stop ‘living with this thing as I have been for the last year.’
I conferred individually with both parties and made sure that they were both ready to sit with each other and respectfully talk about what had happened. That took maybe six hours total. They each were encouraged to bring one support person along.
The victim wanted to know why he was targeted for an assault – not knowing why, he had been living in fear of possibly another one. The attacker explained that he had been upset with other things in his life and that he would never attack again. He had once been assaulted himself and he knew what it was like.
The victim received a heartfelt apology. I have never seen or heard college students talk like this to each other about a serious issue. The dialogue got to a much deeper level. Both left the meeting feeling like a load had been lifted from their shoulders. The meeting itself only took an hour.
If I compare that to what is involved in a formal judicial hearing – often attorneys present at $1,000 an hour, family members, witnesses, police officers and so forth – it is obvious which approach works better with fewer resources used.
Bacon’s fresh approach to discipline has rippled out into many offices and departments dealing with JMU’s 19,500 students, including those concerned with substance abuse, off-campus life, residence life, clubs and organizations, fraternity and sorority life, the health center and even university planning.
Bacon and his collaborators at JMU have come up with a draft “vision statement” for a “university community that is dedicated to living restoratively.”
In a nutshell, the seven points in the draft describe a university where a student learns to live healthily and healingly in community from the day of freshman orientation through his or her time in residence, to handling conflicts in the classroom, on the playing field, and among friends and family members.
For example, Kristen Muncy, an official in the JMU office of student activities & involvement, now devotes a day of the annual week-long “Presidential Leadership Academy” – targeted at the leaders of student government, clubs, Greek societies, and athletic teams – to restorative justice training.
As a sign of JMU’s commitment to RJ, the university has just hired its first, full-time “coordinator of restorative practices,” based in Bacon’s office. The new person is Chris Ehrhart, a 2011 graduate of EMU’s master’s in conflict transformation, with a focus on restorative justice.
In March 2010, 20 JMU officials, including the senior vice president for student affairs and university planning, joined 50 administrators from 11 other universities at EMU’s first symposium on restorative justice in college settings. About half of this group stayed for three additional days to undergo intensive training led by Bacon, Shay Bright of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and David Karp of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.
In March 2011, a three-day RJ training for campus conduct administrators was repeated at EMU, with 25 attendees from eight universities, including far-flung University of San Diego in California, Carleton College in Minnesota and University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Again, Bacon and Karp led the training, along with Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, co-director of the office on crime and justice for Mennonite Central Committee, and Dr. Carl Stauffer, EMU restorative justice professor.
Now Bacon plans to offer RJ training to campus conduct officers from around the region, meeting at the Baltimore campus of the University of Maryland in the fall of 2011.
“I believe higher education is just beginning to discover the potential of restorative justice practices in creating educated and enlightened citizens,” he says.