Restoring Community

Two videos from Michigan State University recently came to my attention. The videos demonstrate the use of restorative practices for responding to student conflict at the university, which has 16,000 students living on campus with a total of 40,000 students enrolled.

According to Rick Shafer, associate director of student life at MSU, for the past two years the university has increasingly used a variety of responsive restorative justice practices in a range of areas.

Said Shafer, "Primarily we are using it in residence halls to deal more reactively with reported conflict." The video below, "Student Voices," shows some great examples of this. A resident assistant discusses how she used a talking circle to work through an issue with residents who responded threateningly to her when she confronted them in a room about noise levels. In another case students offended about a large confederate flag displayed prominently in a residence hall talked through the issue with those who hung the flag to reach a satisfactory resolution. A third incident in the video involves a conflict between students from MSU and another university during an "alternative spring break" bus trip.

Shafer said that in addition to using restorative practices in residence halls, his office uses "restorative principles" within the student conduct system. Whenever a student is referred for some offense his staff employ affective and restorative questions, including "What happened?" "Who has been affected and how?" and "How can things be made right?"

For more information about MSU's restorative justice program, visit their web site.

On October 24, 2012, the Association for Student Conduct Administrators hosts a webinar on RJ in higher ed. To hear MSU's Rick Shafer, IIRP's John Bailie and Washington University in St. Louis's Molly Pierson, click here (membership not required).

Shafer said, "My experience is that when talking with students who have been accused of involvement with violating university policy, when they are asked to reflect on who has been affected by their behavior and what obligations that creates for them, it has changed the tenor of the conversation." He said it's a very different conversation than when someone asks, "Did you break the rule and what should the consequence be?”

Even in cases that have no clear victim, as in underage drinking when perhaps no one else is around, Shafer believes the restorative questions help students understand the impact of their actions. The student may think they haven't affected others. But through a process of reflecting on the questions and discussing the issues involved, they may begin to understand that by leaving their door open, for instance, they put an RA in a position of having to respond. The RA saw what happened, and they would risk losing their job by not reporting the offense. Next, someone in the student conduct office has to take time to read the complaint and decide what to do about it, schedule a meeting and so on. Shafer points out that students' actions have a ripple effect, like a pebble in a pond, and that for every choice there are consequences.

Shafer noted that restorative conferences and circles are made available to anyone on campus who requests one be conducted to resolve an issue. Restorative processes have been used in study abroad programs and alternative spring break (see "Student Voices" video). Employees in the human resources department have also been trained, and have used restorative processes in the domain of collective negotiations, managing peer-to-peer conflicts as well as conflicts along the supervisory chain.

While employed at the university, Nancy Schertzing, an IIRP licensee, was instrumental in developing the RJ movement there and for making the two videos below. (Schertzing's work in high schools was formerly cited in 2007 in this eForum article by Abbey Porter.)


Restorative Justice: Students' Voice

Restorative Justice at Michigan State