In a restorative approach to discipline, offenders are made to see how their actions have negatively impacted others. They work to restore the harm done to those involved, and are less likely to re-offend because of a new understanding of the effect of their actions on others.
For this process to be effective, students must come to empathize with those their actions have harmed. But the assumptions underlying this process merit further examination.
The first assumption is that students are capable of empathizing with those their actions have harmed. But what if this is not universally true? Just as there is a normal variance in academic outcomes amongst a student body, we should acknowledge that there is most likely a normal distribution of the ability to empathize. In other words, some students are capable of extreme empathy, while others might struggle to show even a little bit. Yet, the restorative process treats all students as if they are equally capable of empathy. Those who engage in restorative practices should acknowledge that due to natural variations in empathy, some students may not come to fully understand the damage done by their actions until later in life, if ever. Practitioners should be prepared with alternative practices, and should understand that just because it doesn’t work with everyone doesn’t mean it’s not a valid practice.
The second assumption is that coming to empathize with those one has harmed after committing an offense will make it less likely for one to offend again. The problem with this assumption is that we may be comparing apples and oranges. Take the case of a student who destroyed school property after being involved in a verbal confrontation with a teacher. Sitting in a restorative circle one week later, after the smoke has cleared, with the teacher, principal, and head custodian, that student may be able to clearly see the harm that was done and empathize with the three adults who were affected. But the teenage brain is a fickle organ–when faced with a similar situation two weeks later, there is simply not a lot of evidence to suggest that student may be able to call up the empathy he felt back in that restorative circle and think twice about his actions.
My stance on restorative discipline continues to be one of qualified support. But proponents of the restorative approach need to reckon with some of the big question marks still surrounding the approach if they want to be able to withstand the inevitable backlash coming as restorative discipline sees wider implementation in cities and districts across the country.