Addressing Challenges to Social Justice in Community, Conduct, and Conflict Resolution Using Restorative Practices

By Narges Ershad (she/her),
Tyler Fultz (they/them), and Lauren Mauriello (she/her)

Following years of highly publicized instances of police violence against black people in the United States, students, faculty, staff, and University community members are calling on higher education institutions to review policies and practices which involve policing and systems of accountability on campuses (Kerandi, 2020; Varkony, 2020; Davis III & Matias Dizon, 2020). Op-eds in university newspapers and statements from Black faculty and students have emphasized that these reviews are necessary to ensure that the University systems which have historically marginalized Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) are equitable, are in line with best practices, and build trust between those who administer accountability systems and the community (UMBC Black Lives Matter, 2020). 



Following years of highly publicized instances of police violence against black people in the United States, students, faculty, staff, and University community members are calling on higher education institutions to review policies and practices which involve policing and systems of accountability on campuses (Kerandi, 2020; Varkony, 2020; Davis III & Matias Dizon, 2020). Op-eds in university newspapers and statements from Black faculty and students have emphasized that these reviews are necessary to ensure that the University systems which have historically marginalized Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) are equitable, are in line with best practices, and build trust between those who administer accountability systems and the community (UMBC Black Lives Matter, 2020). 


Recently, attention has been focused on what diminished police involvement on college campuses could look like, and some actions have been taken, including one powerful demonstration of divestment from the University of Minnesota, whose President stated that the University will no longer utilize the Minneapolis Police Department's services for support on campus. But what then? With or without divestment, how do community members within the University build trust, ensure the common need to be treated with dignity, and exercise agency? This opens the door for a central question in our profession: What type of community do we want, and how can those who work in student conduct help us get there?


Restorative practices offers Universities a way to invest in desperately needed tools to structure our communities, with purpose. (Bolton, 2019).  As we look inward at educational practices that uphold systems of power, using restorative practices provides an opportunity to integrate tools and values that promote community, relational pedagogies, equity, and justice in our day-to-day work.  


Defining Restorative


Restorative practices is a philosophy and set of formal and informal tools which view building relationships, repairing harm, and rebuilding trust when harm occurs as important methods of creating a peaceful and productive society.  The fundamental hypothesis of restorative practices embraced by the International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP) is that “people are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes when those in authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them” (Watchel, 2012).  Ted Wachtel, the founder of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, identifies the most important elements of restorative practices as exercising inclusive decision-making (or fair process); doing things with, rather than to or for community members (illustrated through the Social Discipline Window); and maximizing opportunities for expression of emotion (or positive affect) (Wachtel & Wachtel, 2012). 


When applied to education, restorative practices broadly refers to the use of proactive measures for building positive school climates as well as shifting to an 80:20 proactiveness/reactiveness model.  This means that 80% of our work is about building connections between and among members of the school community, and the remaining 20% of our work focuses on harm and relationship reparation after misconduct occurs.


An expanded framework: Understanding the power of RP to transform systems through conduct work (Lauren)


 Student conduct needs restorative practices because teaching students about their role in the community requires a community in the first place.  As conduct administrators, we tend to view our focus on campus narrowly: discipline and accountability.  We connect our mission to develop civic-minded community members while keeping the community safe to the processes and procedures of adjudicating rule and policy violations.  As a result, our work focuses on accountability and we leave relationship and community building to residential and student life staff.  This narrow way of practicing is obviously limiting, but how do conduct officers get involved in the work of community building?  Restorative practices challenges the efficacy of focusing only on accountability, offering us a framework for balancing accountability with a deep investment in community building by strengthening relationships between individuals and strengthening social connections within our community.


An important value of restorative practices is the expectation that community members in every area will maintain simultaneously high boundaries, expectations, and standards for one another (or high accountability) and simultaneously high levels of investment in relationships and actions that tend to the needs of individuals (or high support).  This balance between accountability and nurturing is illustrated through the Social Discipline Window (SDW) (Figure 1).  This means that community-building efforts expand to include accountability, expectation setting, and commitments to the community through setting community standards; familiar accountability tools for conduct officers (Mauriello and Pierson, 2018).

Figure 1. The relationships between high structure (control, accountability, boundaries) and high support (caring, nurturing, fair) practices  (Wachtel, 2014)


The SDW is a useful tool for assessing the “restorativeness” of a system, decision, practice, or behavior.  The SDW reminds us that our way of being—in addition to our policies, procedures, and rules—has the potential to transform systems, develop wellbeing, promote positive school culture that facilitates healthy relationships, prevent challenging behaviors, and increase motivation. At this point, you might be asking yourself: How does with leadership transform systems?  How do we put the idea of with leadership into practice?  If we truly value establishing communities that are just and equitable, how do we practice in a way that allows us to be alert to the perpetuation of systems that focus on exclusion and oppression?


Conceptually, the idea of balancing accountability with support as leaders makes sense, but we are often asked as trainers: what does this look like in practice?  The tool we utilize for practicing with leadership is called “fair process” (Kim & Mauborgne, 1997).  Fair process asks us to implement decision-making approaches where those who have a stake in a decision have a say in the decision-making process.  This flips the hierarchical system of rule-making on its head by giving the community the power to set norms, expectations, and rules which govern how they will live and work together.  Therefore, fair process is a powerful tool which illustrates the capacity for restorative practices to upend status quo dominance norms through practicing with leadership. 


Some strategies for cultivating community capacity to transform relationships by using restorative tools like fair process and with leadership include:

  • Developing space for community-standards setting opportunities, 
  • Checking “who is in the room” during decision-making and during the process of deciding how decisions will be made
  • Involving students in the process of developing sanctions 
  • Co-creating procedures related to accountability
  • Developing residential or student organization educational plans
  • Training staff, faculty and students involved in the conduct process on the SDW and using fair process in decision making
  • Use restorative practices as a pedagogical tool to structure courses, seminars and trainings
  • Look beyond the hearing hoard and hearing officers when offering trainings, discussions and education on restorative concepts, values and tools so that restorative processes enter the vernacular and culture of the community before conduct meetings

Understanding restorative approaches to conduct contextually: Social context and justice (Tyler)


When we meet with students after harm has occurred, the local, national, and global contexts come into the conduct meeting with us.  This has been evident in numerous conduct hearings over the last decade (and beyond) as anti-blackness in policing nationally has affected the impact of policing on our campuses.  For instance, I managed a conduct case at a large public university in the Mountain West in which a first-year black woman experienced a physical trauma response upon being contacted for cannabis by police. Discussing this trauma response in the conduct meeting made the student reexperience some of the emotions she felt during this incident.  I saw multiple coexisting needs in our conversation: supporting a student who experienced a racist trauma, discussing how the student's behavior impacted other community members, and recognizing the dynamics that come with my positionality as a white conduct officer while holding the other two needs.  I felt that prioritizing supporting this student was the right thing to do, so I proceeded by pausing the accountability conversation and actively listening to the impact that this situation had on the student.  Maslow (1943) teaches that physiological and safety needs must be met before achieving higher order goals, so creating a supportive environment for this student was vital to later being able to discuss her behavior's impact on community members.  Many students already see conduct officers as “principals” or “police,” so without taking the time to balance accountability in this conduct meeting with high levels of support, this conduct meeting could have validated and reinforced anti-Blackness.  This situation revealed to me that within our sociopolitical context, conduct environments cannot legitimately be highly accountable without also being highly supportive.


    As we continue to manage how the trauma of anti-black police brutality across the country impacts campus policy confrontations, restorative practices helps create the highly supportive culture needed to balance our accountability processes.  At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, we have converted these cultural elements into principles that guide our conduct processes, particularly through 1) prioritizing connection before content and 2) promoting responsibility by balancing high accountability with high support.  We train student staff to proactively build relationships early, requiring all Resident Assistants to meet with each of their residents individually within the first three weeks of the year.  When harm does occur, student staff confronting the situation already have a relationship with their residents, allowing there to be greater potential for empathy, understanding, and investment in the community when a confrontation occurs.  This is reiterated in the conduct process, as conduct officers spend a significant amount of time getting to know students prior to transitioning into accountability conversations.  By prioritizing the restorative value of connection, we set up a relationship in which there is greater mutual empathy when we begin to discuss how harm impacted others, leading students to take ownership of their impact.  


Additionally, we structure our conduct process around using affective questions, a common tool in restorative practices, to help students reflect on their behavior, communicate their emotions regarding their behavior, and consider new perspectives about their impacts.  These questions walk students through what happened during the situation, what they were thinking at the time of and since the situation, who may have been affected by their behavior, and what they can do to address these impacts.  Since prioritizing connection before content builds empathy and trust, the reflective elements of affective questions translate that empathy and trust into conversations about harm and accountability in ways that lend greater legitimacy to the conduct process.  Particularly as the incidents we discuss in conduct meetings intersect with anti-black violence nationally and on our campuses, I have found that I can respond to this violence in conduct meetings by building trust with students through prioritizing support, empathy, and understanding using restorative practices and subsequently building on this foundation in accountability conversations.


Beyond Higher Ed: The role of restorative practices in resolving trauma conflicts (Narges)


During this time of overlapping pandemics, we need to be sure that restorative practices translate virtually and across cultures.  As a conduct officer who has used restorative practices for 5+ years, and an Iranian immigrant to the U.S, I took these tools with me when I was asked to work with refugee women who immigrated from Iran/Afghanistan to Greece through an NGO, where I found these tools to be especially applicable.  Omid Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports marginalized Farsi speaking young women who are refugees living together in OMID safe houses in Greece.  These women have language in common, but they are diverse in their culture and background.  Additionally, while they have all experienced trauma, the level of trauma varies from woman to woman.  Omid Foundation has a holistic approach and a key area that they focus on is self-empowerment. (  The group of people who were taken in by this foundation are coming in with complex traumas, and a trauma-informed lens is required when working with them.  Based on my experience with marginalized disadvantaged women that come from such backgrounds, they are used to decisions being made for or to them, which could cause trauma by removing their power.  Therefore, when trying to include them in rebuilding their own community, shifting to with leadership where support is high and trauma informed care is embedded is key.  Because of my experience using restorative practices as a conduct officer, I was able to apply restorative tools like participatory decision making to empower these women, establish community standards, and resolve conflicts.  This allowed me to truly listen to them and really ask "what happened?” what harm occurred.

In these unprecedented times in which many of us are working remotely and seeing cases through our screens, working with Farsi speaking refugee women in Greece while being based in the USA was a challenge at first.  As a safe house team member with a student conduct background, I focused on building a community through virtual circles through various internet platforms, setting rules, and addressing harms when they occured using restorative practices.  We supported them in developing commitment for their communities by training them on fair process and creating virtual space for them to develop and maintain community standards. 

One powerful example from my time with Omid illustrates the usefulness and benefits of RP to intervene in a trauma-informed way to strengthen relationships, build commitment to the community using inclusive decision making, and maintain high accountability and high support during a severe violation of the rules.  In this incident, two women exchanged verbal threats of assault, which threatened their ability to continue living in the safe house. On move-in day to a new safe-house, two women from different nationalities (Afghan and Iranian) insulted one another by using racial slurs and calling out the other persons' nationality and cultural group.  Knowing that this escalation could result in their expulsion from the program, and keeping in mind the context of their situations, it was essential to intervene through a trauma-informed lens, while also holding them accountable for their actions.  Showing up in the with box (Fig. 1) and using affective questioning to elicit how each person impacted and was impacted by the other person was a transformative approach toward reaching resolution. 

Having to talk about such a sensitive topic on the spot, virtually, from thousands of miles away was not easy, but it was made easier because we had a restorative foundation.  The women were aware of the community standards because they were involved in the process of developing them.  They were used to being in “circle”, using a virtual talking piece, and passing it from person to person because we use the practice for every meeting.  They also knew to establish ground rules for the intervention.  Using hand gestures, talking to people both individually and in a group, and imagining we were all in the same room were helpful tools.  As the facilitator of the conversations, I made sure they were heard and had space to share their perspectives and thoughts.  Creating a safe-space for responding to questions like “what was the hardest part for you?” and “what were you thinking at the time?” were key tools for women who have not before been taught to think for or of themselves.  Removing these women from the safe house, per the rules, would have caused further trauma.  Using restorative practices acknowledged that these women were in survival mode trying to protect themselves and those that they love, needed trust and space, and needed to be empowered in the process of repairing the harm.  To that end, I had them brainstorm how this act disrupted the community and what they could have done differently.  This productive conversation helped them repair the harm in the community and repair the harm between themselves to the point that they requested to remain roommates. 


As we look to transform our work as conduct officers, we can look to examples like The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), where restorative practices is utilized to develop and attend to individual and community agency, wellbeing, connection, and harm repair.  The opportunity to be a part of prevention efforts is exciting to those of us who are looking for ways to be a part of the community building efforts at our institutions.  As we undertake these opportunities, it is important that in our efforts to implement restorative practices, we don't forget that we aren't just learning and implementing a new set of skills, procedures, or practices.  We are also implementing a demeanor, way of being, and way of leading with others.  


To that end, there are two important items to keep in mind as conduct officers begin the work of exploring restorative practices.  First, restorative practices is about both proactive and responsive practices, and simultaneously, the values of relationships, fairness, and repairing harm.  We will fall short if we solely use restorative practices reactively or selectively.   Second, restorative practices exists simultaneously as a set of tools and a way of being.  For example, beyond training student affairs folks on how to facilitate a community building circle, they need to understand the restorative values that are inherent in a circle process (i.e. connection, accountability to one another, agency, etc.).  Conduct officers should consider restorative practices as an integrated approach, linked to other interventions and initiatives rather than an isolated program or event.  When restorative practices aligns with restorative values and principles, there is so much possibility. 


In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and other black folks by police, conduct officers at postsecondary institutions can no longer separate the values of equity, agency, and trust-building from student conduct practice.  It is time to prioritize practices based on these values.  Restorative practices offers evidence-based best practices that can be used remotely and in person to inform our work. 



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