SAN FRANCISCO — How far can colleges go to stop students who are threatening to commit suicide?
It’s a fundamental question for college and university officials who work in the fields of student affairs, counseling and mental health -- and for the lawyers who may have to deal with the aftermath, and sometimes see mental health issues as a minefield of potential litigation.
As the academic year unwinds, college administrators across the country anxiously await the inevitable bad news from their campus safety departments. In addition to relatively minor infractions of campus rules and regulations, there will be binge drinking, the plagiarizing of papers, and often much worse, such as acts of physical and sexual violence. It is clear that students who commit serious and violent criminal offenses must be expelled, for the safety and well-being of all. But what of the majority who commit lesser violations of campus or criminal codes? Are we using the best approaches to hold such students accountable for their actions and to meet the needs of harmed parties and the campus community?
Though colleges and universities are generally viewed as forward-thinking, even experimental, campus judicial responses generally rely on uncreative, cookie-cutter sanctions. Judicial officers are overly cautious in response to liability concerns, outcomes are often dissatisfying to victims and offenders in the process, and the system has been unable to change campus cultures dominated by partying. Campus judicial responses are lagging behind the criminal and juvenile justice systems in our society in using new, effective strategies. College campuses are ideal places to develop and test such strategies, but so far our institutions of higher learning have largely stayed out of the loop on this matter.
"Restorative justice" is a new response to offending behavior and the approach has a proven track record in criminal and juvenile justice cases. Not only does it reduce recidivism, but it is widely perceived by offenders and victims as fair and better able to meet their emotional and material needs than traditional retributive responses. Restorative justice approaches to student misconduct are a promising tool that liberal arts colleges such as Skidmore College and large public institutions like the University of Colorado are using effectively to change campus culture.
Restorative approaches call upon offenders, victims, and community members to participate in the decision-making process following a campus violation. Through open dialogue, each participant comes to understand the full impact of the offense, educating the offender about the consequences of his or her behavior. This alone is a powerful device for eliciting sincere expressions of remorse and commitments to right the wrong. Articulating the harm in detail also paves the way for creation of a restorative agreement -- a list of tasks tailored to repair the harm and rebuild the community’s confidence in the offender. Typically, such tasks include apology letters, further research on the impact of the harm, restitution, community service that is linked to the offense, and activities that better integrate the offender into the campus community. At Skidmore, students cannot register for the next semester’s classes until their restorative agreements are completed. This is a direct message that it is up to the offenders to take responsibility not only for their prior misconduct, but also for their future education.
Three cases, drawn from a variety of institutions nationally, help to illustrate this approach. The first involved a group of athletes who stole and made use of disabled parking placards. The incident generated significant ire among the disabled community. A restorative conference was held with the athletes and affected parties, including professors and students with disabilities. The dialogue enabled the athletes to learn the impact of their behavior and reduce the tension between these groups. While the athletes took responsibility for their behavior in several ways, it is notable that a major component of the restorative agreement was a collaboration with educational goals. The athletes and some of those with disabilities agreed to co-produce a video about disability issues and to present workshops during first year student orientation.
The second case was a response to a theft by a drunken student. Walking home from a bar, a student stole a public art object that was part of a citywide project of the local arts council. Participating in the restorative dialogue was the student the local artist, the store owner who sponsored the artist, and the director of the city arts council. Each was able to express how he or she was affected by the theft. By the end of the meeting, the offender committed to completing 100 hours of community service at the arts council, paying the costs of repairing the artwork, helping write a guide to proper conduct for students living off-campus, completing an alcohol use assessment, and organizing an alcohol-free social event on campus. Later, when the case reached the criminal court, the prosecutor and judge were impressed that the campus obligations were more onerous than the fine and probation they intended to impose. Restorative justice, they realized, was not soft on crime.
The third illustrates the use of restorative justice in an academic case, highlighting how the approach is particularly relevant to the educational setting. Here, a student plagiarized a paper, and appeared before a restorative panel to discuss the harmful consequences and create a plan of action. During the discussion the student learned about the disappointment and sense of betrayal expressed by her professor. The panel members were able to learn about the student’s lack of confidence in her ability to write a "college-level paper." The group agreed to a restorative contract that included several items: rewriting the paper to demonstrate a proper use of sources, an apology to the professor, and a presentation to the campus community about academic integrity and how to protect it.
Such examples illustrate the educational nature of the restorative approach, rather than having the response be simply punitive. Students are expected to reflect on the consequences of their actions. They are asked to take active responsibility for making amends. They must demonstrate their ability to be pro-social members of the community. With such an approach, there is rarely a need to suspend students for their misconduct because the response is sufficiently demanding and highly supervised. Students are not let off the hook, but they are not ostracized either. Most often, the best place for them is on campus, facing the problem directly. Campuses can do much more than cut and paste the standard issue disciplinary code. Already, job ads for campus judicial officers are calling for backgrounds in restorative justice, and this is a good sign. Now, all we need are the programs for them to run.
David R. Karp
David R. Karp is an associate professor of sociology and director of the Law and Society Program at Skidmore College.
PHOENIX -- A quarter of students surveyed in the latest National College Health Assessment reported that stress has hurt their academic performance, with such impacts as lower grades or dropped courses. That proportion has fluctuated in the vicinity of 30 percent for more than a decade.