Use of Restorative Justice Improves Campus Behavior

After more than a decade of ushering misbehaving students at James Madison University (JMU) through hearings on their conduct, sanctions, and other legalistic steps, Josh Bacon was ready for a change.

“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.”


Symposium presenters Josh Bacon (left), JMU director of Office of Judicial Affairs, and Shay Bright (far right), assistant director of conflict resolution and student conduct services at Colorado State University, talk with keynote speaker Howard Zehr, EMU professor of restorative justice and bestselling author of The Little Book of Restorative Justice.

Seeking a fresh approach, Bacon signed up for a restorative justice course at EMU, taught by an internationally recognized pioneer in the restorative justice field, Howard Zehr.

Even before the semester-long course was over, Bacon was applying restorative justice principles and techniques to cases referred to JMU’s Office of Judicial Affairs, which he directs. In the last 18 months, Bacon has offered students the option of participating voluntarily in “restorative justice circles” about 20 times. Nobody has turned him down. The regular judicial procedures remain on the table as back-up options. All concerned – the errant student, the people harmed by the student’s actions, community members affected by the incident, such as campus police or residence hall members – have found it to be an overwhelmingly positive experience, says Bacon.

“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.”

Learn more about the principles of restorative justice

Restorative justice catches on…

Bacon’s fresh, but effective, approach to discipline caught the attention of colleagues scattered across JMU’s 665-acre campus, especially those who spend much of their time addressing the conduct of more than 18,000 students in residence halls, the Greek system, health services, and athletic events.

As a result, 20 JMU officials, including the senior vice president for student affairs and university planning, joined 50 administrators from 11 other universities at a March 15 symposium offered by the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at EMU. About half of this group returned to EMU for the next three full days to undergo intensive training – the most complete yet offered on campus-based restorative justice – led by Bacon, Shay Bright of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and David Karp of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.

All three leaders offered multiple examples from their universities of handling destructively drunken students, vandalism, plagiarism, theft, assault, interpersonal conflict, and noise issues through circles and other restorative justice processes. Bacon’s preferred process, a restorative justice circle, is not complicated, though it does require a trained facilitator, preferably with a gift for handling sensitive interactions.

The importance of the circle process

To illustrate the circle process, let us start with a composite situation that would be readily recognizable to university officials: a 20-year-old sophomore living in a residence hall gets drunk at an off-campus party. He then joy-drives around the university’s baseball field, leaving deep tire marks. He tops off his evening by vomiting in the lobby of his dormitory. Called by campus police, the city police come and arrest the sophomore for vandalism and under-age drinking.

This “offender” is the son of a lawyer, who proceeds to look for holes in the evidence against his son, fearing his son’s suspension or expulsion, not to mention police record. The father advises his son to admit nothing about the incident. Members of the baseball team begin sending the son angry e-mails and posting blog attacks because they can’t practice on their home field or host home games while new sod is being put down on the damaged parts of their field. The son begins to be afraid of being attacked by baseball players, when he can’t even recall driving across their field. He tells his buddies, “Doesn’t everyone do stupid things when they get drunk?” And they agree, yet he does feel bad, embarrassed, about what he has done.

In the past, Bacon would have felt trapped in the legal issues of the case. Was a breath-test given and what were the results? Is this the sophomore’s first offense? What is the cost of repairing the baseball field? But answering these questions would make nobody feel any better or motivated to change – not the student, not the lawyer-father, not the student’s friends, the baseball players, the residential students who had to smell and step around the vomit until it was cleaned up, the housekeeping staff who cleaned up the vomit, the police who are tired of campus calls like this.

Today, this is what Bacon would do in such a case. He would contact each person affected by the incident – from the student himself to the person who cleaned up the vomit. He would even contact the coach and captain of the university baseball team. He would offer each person the opportunity to participate in a restorative justice process whereby everyone would sit together and consider what harms were done by this incident and what could be done to “put things right.” Bacon would explain that participants in the circle would need to agree to keep the conversation confidential and that matters raised in the circle could not be used in judicial proceedings. Instead the circle would consider who was harmed by this incident, along with possible remedies, usually involving obligations to be met by the offending student.

A new result to an old problem

Here’s how Bacon’s circle would work: each person would speak in turn (only the person holding the “talking piece” may speak – the others must listen), initially telling his or her story. As each person speaks in successive rounds of the circle, the speakers usually move from how they were affected by the offense to exploring ways that the harm can be healed or mitigated. Emotions are often raw, tears common. Nobody is required to speak. When a person is handed the “talking piece,” he or she may pass it along for this round, or even successive rounds.

In such a setting, the sophomore no longer has any reason to minimize his role. He can explain that he was undergoing an initiation into a club and was urged to keep drinking even after he felt he had enough. His designated driver abandoned him, so he tried to get home on his own. And he loves baseball ñ he comes to all the games. He never meant to do anything to hurt the team.

Once all the stories and harms are explored, Bacon would lead the circle to consider next steps. These may include another circle with members of the club that was initiating him, a loan from Dad to pay for re-sodding the baseball field which son will repay by working on the university’s grounds crew for the summer, volunteering to staff the baseball concession stand during home games so more funds could be retained by the team, and helping the residence-hall cleaners on weekends when they are short-handed.

Bacon and his staff would note these steps on an agreement signed by all community members present in the circle – with all pledging to help in restoring the fabric of the community torn by this incident. They would end with socializing around refreshments, which Bacon would have arranged for the sophomore to supply.

Astounding outcomes

Of the 20 circles he has facilitated so far, Bacon says none have failed to yield positive outcomes. At the rate things are going, Bacon dreams of changing the name of his workplace from the “Office of Judicial Affairs” to the “Make Things Right Office.”

Bacon’s mentor, professor Howard Zehr, author of the bestselling Little Book of Restorative Justice, introduced the four-day event at EMU by explaining that restorative justice practices can be traced back to tribal or indigenous practices of peacemaking, but have proven to be helpful even in modern-day cases of crimes with severely harmed victims.

Sociologist David Karp, who co-edited the first book exploring restorative justice for university students, Restorative Justice on the College Campus (2004), notes that the majority of campus offenses are linked to substance abuse, particularly drunkenness. Even sexual assaults are often alcohol-fueled. To reduce this problem, students need to develop “internal controls,” fostered by “moral education” rather than punishment. They need to be held accountable to the community in which they live, with a view of reintegrating them as contributing citizens.

“The removal of a student from the community [as occurs with suspension or expulsion] is likely to displace the problem to another, less fortified community without resolving it,” Karp wrote in the book, though he added that “removal may be necessary when a student poses a threat to campus safety.” A second book, Reframing Campus Conduct – Student Conduct Practice Through a Social Justice Lens (2009), has been produced by two editors active in the Association for Student Conduct Administration, which was known as the Association for Student Judicial Affairs until it changed its name last year.

During their many hours together – listening to speakers, watching short video clips, role playing, sharing their experiences – the participants at this seminar often referred to the gap between why they initially wanted to work with university students – because they believed in the educational and transformational role of the university experience – and their perception by students as being figures of authority and enforcement, to be maneuvered around.

Whether the administrators were from small Christian colleges (and half of them were) or from large, public institutions, all seemed to be on the same page: they wanted to stop relying on legalistic “hammers,” whereby offending students are treated as nails and those harmed get little or no attention, and start using tools that promise to heal the town-and-gown community, while further educating the students about their responsibilities as members of that community.

A positive process

“After 12 years of looking at problems through judicial lens, restorative justice has rejuvenated my career,” says Bacon. “I’m actually enjoying my work these days. I walk out on campus, feeling good, with my head held high, and so does everyone else involved in the process, including the students who have taken responsibility for the harms they caused and are now fixing them. It’s a great feeling.”

Other colleges and universities represented at some part of the four-day event were: Bridgewater College, Liberty University, Virginia Tech, George Mason University, Northern Virginia Community College, and Eastern Mennonite University, all being in Virginia; Howard Community College in Maryland; Eastern University in Pennsylvania; Bluffton University in Ohio; Skidmore College in New York; Colorado State University; and King’s College University in Alberta, Canada.

Post-conference evaluations were 100% positive, with administrators expressing “hope” and “enthusiasm” for this new approach to student conduct problems.

Hard data on the success of restorative justice is currently limited to the criminal justice field; that data is positive. But David Karp at Skidmore has sent surveys to 30 higher education institutions – including the handful that routinely use restorative justice, such as the University of Colorado at Boulder, Michigan State University, and Clemson University – in an effort to determine how restorative justice interventions stack up against traditional disciplinary models in terms of recidivism and other measures of salutary outcomes.