Restorative justice proponents have long advocated for restoring relationships between parties in conflict. At the University of Denver, CRI graduate Maggie Lea (MA’14) works diligently to employ these strategies among students in the Office of Student Life - Student Conduct. Traditional processes of third-party adjudication and arbitration are still in used as well, but such processes often limit student understanding of the impact of their actions and inhibits desire to change behavior. In these situations, students often feel that the process is out of their control, and does not recognize their specific needs or circumstances. Therefore, despite their best intentions, the current case resolution processes tend to encourage a reactive state-of-mind, as opposed to a reflective one, and consequently squash the learning opportunity or “teachable moment.”
At DU, the Student Conduct office seeks to emphasize reflection among these students by offering them the opportunity to participate in Restorative Justice Conferences (RJCs). These RJCs differ from traditional, sanctions-focused approaches. RJCs provide a facilitated dialogue process for students, impacted parties, and community members (all referred to as “stakeholders”) to collectively investigate underlying issues related to the incident. Noting that conduct violations do not happen in isolation, Maggie describes this process as “one that focuses less on the act of ‘rule-breaking’ and centers the conversation around how the student’s behavior impacted the community.”
Drawing from restorative justice models employed by Skidmore College, University of San Diego, University of Colorado, Stanford, and Colorado State University, DU’s RJC program evolved the vision of earlier CRI graduates Adam Brown (MA ’10), Brittany Eskridge (MA ’11), and Jonathan Howard (MA ’10) for campus-wide Conflict Resolution Services [See Winter 2013 Newsletter]. Adam’s idea of piloting RJC’s within undergraduate housing shifted to implementation within the Student Conduct office, and Maggie’s 2012 internship in this department helped moved the program from an idea to reality.
When a case comes before Student Conduct, it is usually a result of an Incident Report filed by DU Campus Safety, faculty, staff, students, or community members within the campus. From that point, there are three methods for addressing the reported student misconduct. The first traditional option involves a Conduct Administrator adjudicating the case through a one-on-one meeting with the student, whereby that administrator makes a determination about the student’s responsibility and assigns typical learning “outcomes” based on Honor Code violations for which the student has been found responsible. The second traditional option employs a Conduct Review Board (CRB), which consists of a panel of individuals (a student, a faculty member, and a staff member). Within this hearing format, the student engages in a discussion about the incident with the CRB, but is absent while the board deliberates and makes a decision about the student’s responsibility and appropriate outcomes.
The third method is the newest on the menu of options for case resolution – the RJC. During the initial meeting with a Conduct Administrator, if the student takes active accountability for his actions and expresses some sign of remorse or sincere apology, the student’s case may be referred to an RJC. What distinguishes the RJC case resolution process from the other two options is that the RJC is a completely voluntary process, and it places the student in the driver’s seat. Instead of relying upon a third-party to hear and decide upon the case, the student is empowered to actively be accountable for her actions, propose ways in which she can address the impact of her actions, and participate in the decision-making process about her outcomes.
Similar to other restorative justice processes, Maggie describes the RJC as a one that requires preparation for all parties involved, including those directly impacted by the student’s actions. Preparation for each individual RJC focuses on brainstorming and acknowledging what individuals were impacted in the situation and who should be invited to attend. The conferences typically involve between six and eight “stakeholders,” as well as two trained facilitators. These participants spend roughly half of the two-hour RJC conference focusing on exposition of the situation and identifying the direct – and indirect - impact caused by the student’s behavior. The latter part of the RJC is dedicated to collaborative brainstorming of appropriate outcomes for the student. Maggie stresses that these outcomes emphasize the student’s ability to address the impact, the rebuilding of community trust, and creation of positive learning opportunities for the student in a holistic manner that is typically lost in the traditional forms of addressing student misconduct.
The DU community values this updated approach to conduct violations. DU Campus Safety fully supports the program, and Sergeant James Johnston, Community Partnerships and Training Coordinator, often frequents RJCs as an impacted party representative or community member. Chase Bennington, President of Kappa Sigma Fraternity, described the program as “the single most engaging experience [he’s] had as an undergraduate at DU.” In addition to anecdotal evidence touting the importance of the RJC process, recidivism data also illustrates initial success of the program. In fact, of the 33 total RJCs that have been completed to date, the numbers show a recidivism (i.e., repeat offenses) rate of only 6%, which is in stark contrast to the 33% recidivism rate of traditional cases. This suggests that students learn to change their behavior better through RJCs than through the traditional case resolution processes.
Its initial success, supports that more should be done to expand and promote the program across DU. Maggie foresees natural expansion of the restorative justice philosophy into DU’s extensive Graduate Studies departments as well as University College. In addition to Campus Safety, CRI, and Korbel Professor Alan Gilbert supports the initiative and suggested a joint certificate program specifically geared towards restorative justice between the Korbel School and Morgridge College of Education. Maggie sees a natural fit for internships for CRI students, as they would be able to achieve direct facilitation experience as well as hands-on program evaluation skills right here on campus.
Despite the success of RJCs at DU, the program still faces financial hurdles. DU’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) was able to help with a one-time grant. Student Conduct’s RJC program can help increase focus on campus inclusive excellence, the repair of relationships harmed in conduct violations, and a balance of challenge and support in developing students to be better prepared to face the challenges of productive citizenship. As Buie Seawell in the Department of Business Ethics and Legal Studies has expressed, “Restorative Justice is the ingredient that is needed in the DU system.”
For more information about how you can help, please contact the program’s coordinator, Maggie Lea at Margaret.Lea@du.edu.
More information about the DU's Restorative Justice Program
Read the article on the Restorative Justice Program in DU's newspaper the Clarion
-- Jonathan McAtee, MA '15