Although it has received significant media coverage over the past few years and nearly every state has passed anti-bullying legislation, bullying remains a pervasive problem in schools across the nation. Nearly one-third of U.S. students aged 12 to 18 are bullied each year, and stories of bullying victims committing suicide are becoming more and more common.
Most states have adopted punishment as the primary tool for stopping bullying. In contrast, no state requires that schools utilize restorative justice in their efforts to reduce bullying. Restorative justice focuses on making victims whole and rehabilitating offenders through a reconciliation process that involves these parties as well as the community at large. Victim-offender dialogue, community/school conferencing, and victim impact panels are used to determine why the harm occurred, who should be responsible for repairing the harm, and how to make the victim whole.
Various schools and state criminal justice systems across the nation have begun using restorative justice in contexts other than bullying. In Oakland, since a restorative justice model has been implemented to address the school-to-prison pipeline, suspension rates have dropped and students feel a stronger sense of community at school. Massachusetts has started approaching certain criminal offenses with restorative justice and has experienced a decrease in recidivism as a result.
States should amend their anti-bullying laws to provide for both restorative justice and punitive measures. While punishment has deterrence benefits, unlike a restorative justice model, it fails to address the underlying causes of bullying.
Bullying is often driven by stresses in the bully’s world, such as strained parental relationships, low self-esteem, poor academic performance, fear of being left out of the “in group,” or exposure to violence. Exerting power over others allows bullies to feel better about themselves and comes easy to bullies as they are often adept at blinding themselves from the pain they cause their victims. Rather than address bullies’ feelings of inferiority or foster a sense of empathy towards victims, punishment stokes the anger that bullies feel and perpetuates the cycle of bullying.
Frequently, bullies who are suspended or otherwise punished continue to harass their victims. For example, in Morrow v. Balaski, a recent federal court case involving a claim that a school district was liable for bullying, two sisters were physically and verbally assaulted by a bully on multiple occasions. On one such occasion, the bully was suspended from school and charged with simple assault. Following the suspension, the bully’s behavior escalated; she attempted to throw one of the sisters down a flight of steps, elbowed the sister in the throat at a school event, and continued to verbally abuse both sisters.
Punishment also fails to address another contributor to bullying: school officials that view bullying as a right of passage or that do not understand the dynamics of bullying. Although bullying has become a hot-button issue, many school officials continue to believe that bullying is a part of childhood – “kids will be kids.” Furthermore, given the complexity of the relationship between bullies and victims, school officials may not have the knowledge necessary to effectively intervene to stop bullying. Punishing bullies does not engage school officials in any kind of collaborative process geared at understanding bullying; rather, such officials simply act as reporters or rule-enforcers.
Where the punishment model falls short, a restorative justice approach excels. In the bullying context, restorative justice may involve a dialogue between the bully, the victim, school officials, and the families of both the bully and victim. These individuals would approach the bullying as a “team.” The team would discuss how the bullying affected the victim, the bully’s reasons for harassing the victim, and what school officials could have done to prevent the bullying. Through this dialogue, the parties would identify a way to hold the bully accountable to the victim.
Restorative justice treats the wrongdoer as a human being that made a mistake and seeks to understand the reasons for the wrongdoer’s behavior. During the restorative justice process, bullies would be able to discuss their feelings with an audience that cares about their well being, providing them with an opportunity to address the issues causing them to bully. Part of the team’s proposal for holding the bully accountable can also incorporate measures, such as counseling, that help address the bully’s personal struggles. In addition, by forcing bullies to confront the pain and sadness they cause, the process would make them more empathetic.
Restorative justice also provides a learning opportunity for school officials. Listening to bullies and victims’ respective stories, school officials would gain new insights into what causes bullying, how to intervene when bullying arises, and what measures can be taken to prevent bullying. Such a dialogue would also demonstrate to school officials the seriousness of our bullying problem.
While it appears that restorative justice can be a powerful tool for combating bullying, punitive measures should not be discarded. In some situations, punitive measures are necessary, and there is value in the deterrent effect that accompanies punishment. Restorative justice can be implemented as an initial response to bullying, with punishment to be used for repeat offenders or in more egregious cases.
There is no silver bullet for addressing a problem as complex as bullying; we must use a variety of strategies. Although the restorative justice movement is still in its infancy, restorative justice programs have a proven track record. We cannot afford to ignore such a promising approach when it comes to bullying. The stakes are too high.