Last week, I had an opportunity to attend a four day training on Restorative Practices. This alternative supplement to traditional disciplinary structures is gaining popularity among schools and courts in Southeast Michigan. Like any new strategy though, it has strengths and weaknesses.
The International Institute for Restorative Practices provides training to teachers, administrators and criminal justice professionals in this alternative to traditional disciplinary systems.
2 Concepts, 1 Name
The training all falls under the category Restorative Practice, but it really covered two separate concepts. The first was a day-to-day classroom strategy to help students develop stronger relationships and higher emotional intelligence. It used “affective” statements and questions to help students better express their feelings and teach empathy.
When formal discipline becomes necessary, the second concept kicks in: facilitated conferences that give everyone impacted the chance to express their emotions and their needs. This process can be used in place of, or in conjunction with traditional forms of discipline like suspension, jail, or probation.
Both concepts can be used to address the School to Prison Pipeline and keep kids in the classroom and out of juvenile detention facilities. But attorneys should beware of the process along the way.
Defense Strategy Concerns
Formal conferences can be used before authorities decide whether to press charges. In fact, the facilitator advises offenders that if they choose not to participate, the issue may be sent back to court. But a formal conference is “not appropriate” if the offender does not fully admit liability. If the formal conference breaks down that admission can be used against the offender at court. Before agreeing to a formal conference, offenders should discuss the consequences of that admission and the conference agreement with a criminal lawyer familiar with the process.
Family Group Meetings and Trauma
Restorative Practices also includes a strategy called a Family Group Meeting, where professionals provide information about the expectations and programs available to families within the CPS system. The the family, alone, works out which strategies are best for them. This strategy could be very beneficial to families struggling to meet the demands of CPS. IIRP also advocates its use in domestic violence cases.
But in recurrent domestic violence, this strategy places the survivor and the abuser together, possibly for the first time since conviction to discuss emotional and personal issues. This has a real chance of triggering trauma responses in the survivor, and could push the abuser to re-offend. Survivors interested in using the Family Group Meeting strategy should consider bringing along a professional, like a counselor, for support. They need to have someone there to step in if things get out of hand.
The Restorative Practices methods offered by IIRP have the potential to improve school discipline and aid in the healing process for victims of everything from bullying to murder. But no system is without its limitations. Before agreeing to a restorative practice conference, make sure to talk with a lawyer about whether it is appropriate in your particular situation.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a family and juvenile defense lawyer for Schmidt Law Services, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She is also certified in Restorative Practices. If you are considering participating in a Formal Conference or Family Group Meeting, contact Schmidt Law Services today for a consultation.