Modernity is defined by the Enlightenment idea that reason can be turned into a god. If an idea was rational, then it must be true. By this logic, people normally do not do irrational things and therefore are naturally good. Human misbehavior can be attributed not to individuals but defects in society.
Based on these ideas, the modernist mind spins off a vast array of idyllic rhapsodies to mold society in its likeness.
One idea very much in vogue in America’s schools is “restorative justice.” Parents, grandparents, and others involved in education need to understand this program and its inevitable failure.
Restorative Justice Explained
Victor Small is a middle school administrator in Oakland, California, who believes in restorative justice. He gives an example that will serve to define the idea:
“Say you stole a car. Instead of you necessarily doing jail time, really what you would have to first do is make sure that you restore the situation to the person who you actually harmed, which would be the person whose car you stole, right? … Either you’d have to get them their car back or get them a new car and apologize or something like that. Basically, the debt that you owe to society is to that person that you harmed.”
Mr. Small’s school system, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), is deeply invested in this idea. It produced its own “implementation guide.”
The “Restorative” Process
The guide mainly outlines ways school personnel can develop an atmosphere in which the program can work effectively. However, on page 40, it briefly describes the methodology to be applied to misbehaving students.
That process takes place in a “circle of support.” It consists of the misbehaving student(s), the victim(s), teachers and at least one administrator. The goal is to use guiding questions, “with the intention of identifying needs and generating a plan for supporting the student.” Guiding questions include:
- What do you feel you need to be successful and feel supported?
- What are your triggers? What space do you need when you feel triggered?
- What are your challenges away from school?
- What did you learn from what happened?
Hopefully, the misbehaving students will recognize the causes of their misbehavior. That presumably enables students, with the support of the school community, to reform.
A Cautionary Tale
OUSD does admit that “There may be times when a restorative process won’t work because the conditions have not been fully established.” Notice that there is no consideration that the basic ideas may have flaws, only that they may be poorly implemented.
Julia Carlson, Ed. D, a Massachusetts school administrator, is a believer in restorative justice, despite her bad experience. She told her story in an article published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank.
Dr. Carlson found out that her son was being insulted and robbed regularly in his middle school by three other students. When she contacted the school, the administrator proposed that her son should participate in a restorative justice circle with the three other students and the school’s “dean of culture.”
She initially rejected the idea. “The idea that my son would sit in a circle with three boys who had tormented him for months made me physically sick. He would have no one there to sit beside him and support him. I had been an educator long enough to know what would happen.” However, her son liked the dean of culture and thought that it might help, so she consented.
The result confirmed her worst fears. The three boys continued the mistreatment after the session. When reported, the administrator was inclined to believe the three boys because their accounts agreed with each other. Angered, Dr. Carlson demanded to see footage from the school’s security cameras. The evidence bore out her son’s account. However, administrators did not punish the other boys because all had been previously suspended. School policy forbade subsequent suspensions. She transferred her son to a different school.
The Missing Element
Dr. Carlson’s conclusion is surprising. “I still believe that restorative justice—if adopted for the right reasons and implemented correctly—is a much-needed practice, but I can’t support the way it is currently being used. If and when that changes, I’m on board.”
Her reaction begs the question, “How could she believe in the process after her son’s experience?” Her response echoes the OUSD guide quoted above. It is that a good idea can be poorly implemented.
Restorative justice would work if the Enlightenment’s erroneous assumptions about human nature were true. Since it does not work, its promoters will not admit error but merely an improper application. Indeed, the vision excludes a very real problem that can be summed up in one simple three-letter word, sin.
Sin and Grace
Those who invent programs like restorative justice believe that rationally fixing society would enable people to act responsibly. In the real world, the community can only improve when individuals abandon sin.
The tendency to sin is an inheritance from the first parents, Adam and Eve. It is an irrational act of rebellion against the Creator. By God’s grace, people can overcome the tendency and adopt habits that will lead to and restore justice. However, such an attitude is not reached in a “circle” of restorative justice.
Thus, despite the best intention of all those involved in the trendy restorative justice program, it will not work. Its premises are wrong. There is no way to implement an imperfect system perfectly. Returning to a world of order requires the abandonment of sin. Nothing else will work.