Georgia College introduces new restorative justice process on campus

Georgia College introduces new restorative justice process on campus

I t’s a growing movement worldwide—restorative justice. Primarily used in the criminal justice system, the restorative justice model has increasingly been used on college campuses to build community and offer an alternative to traditional student conduct hearings and discipline.

“There's some really good research around it being a good educational tool that still holds people accountable for their actions,” said Dr. Jennifer Graham, director of the Women’s Center, who is leading the effort on campus. “It can also lower recidivism rates.”

There's some really good research around it being a good educational tool that still holds people accountable for their actions.
– Dr. Jennifer Graham
Some colleges have moved from their traditional student judicial process completely to restorative justice. At Georgia College, we now have a blended model. It’s not only a different way to handle conduct violations. It’s also about community building.

“Restorative Justice is a constructive method for dealing with harms caused to a community by an individual or a group,” said Dr. Tom Miles, dean of students. “It is not solely a student conduct tool, but a way of addressing issues that may or may not violate The Bobcat Code.”

The restorative justice approach at Georgia College is three-tiered. Its foundation is built on fostering a sense of community across campus while providing a positive way to address issues and concerns.

“We call those community building circles. The goal is just to do that— to build community for our students,” said Graham.  

“We hosted a community building circle at the beginning of the semester around coming back after COVID. It was a place to process this last year and a half and talk about the unique challenges we all have faced,” she said.

The Women's Center has used the community building circles as a model for staff meetings.
The Women's Center has used the community building circles as a model for staff meetings.

The structured conversation is led by a trained facilitator who prompts the group and ensures everyone’s thoughts are heard.

“A lot of the work, especially in the community building circles, is very similar to what we do at the Outdoor Center,” said Liz Speelman, director of the Outdoor Center and trained facilitator. “It's about building relationships. Restorative justice goes further so that you can restore relationships between groups, and everyone can share and feel heard.” 

Speelman co-facilitated the first community circle on campus early in the fall 2021 semester. She calls it “another way for us to better understand others rather than just living in our own bubble.”

The second layer of restorative justice is an alternative to the student conduct process.

 “That’s what we call a restorative conference,” said Graham “It brings together the person or persons who have been harmed by some actions and then the person or persons who did that harm with two facilitators.”

Dr. Jennifer Graham
Dr. Jennifer Graham

It’s different from a traditional student conduct process. At the conference, both parties are present and structured questions are asked by facilitators. The goal is to bring all the information about the incident out.

“The typical judicial process doesn’t offer people who've been impacted by someone's actions the opportunity to ask questions like, ‘Why me?’ A restorative justice conference does,” Graham said. “It explicitly asks people who caused harm why they did the thing they did. So, victims and impacted parties get answers to their questions.”

After the open discussion, the conference moves on to the agreements phase. The person who caused harm must commit to do certain things to make right their wrong.

 “These could range from writing an apology letter, community service, doing some kind of advocacy or awareness project on campus, research or paying restitution,” said Graham. “It's not just sticking somebody with a fine putting them on probation. They must be an active participant in making it right again, which I think is a really powerful thing for people. That’s how we use it as an alternative to the student conduct process.”

So far, Graham and her team have held one restorative justice conference. For a restorative justice conference to even be an option though, the student must accept responsibility for their actions. If the student agrees to go through the restorative conference and follows through with the agreements, they won’t have a conduct record. 

It is extremely educational and provides the student with time to reflect on their behavior and an opportunity to fix the harm caused by their action.
– Dr. Tom Miles

“In the process, students come to understand how their behavior caused harm to the overall community and the need to address these harms,” Miles said. “It is extremely educational and provides the student with time to reflect on their behavior and an opportunity to fix the harm caused by their action.”  

The final tier focuses on what’s called reentry and support circles. 

“Sometimes a student has been separated from the institution— they've gone out on a medical withdrawal or they have been suspended because of something that they've done—and now they’re coming back to campus,” said Graham. “We want to help support them as they transition back to campus life.”

It’s not just for students either. Graham sees this as an opportunity to help faculty and staff when they adjust to changes in their life. One example she gave was new moms when they return to work after maternity leave. Reentry and support circles could connect new moms with resources on campus and help to smooth the transition back to work life.

“I hope it will be a whole campus initiative,” said Graham. “There are so many ways that we can use restorative justice to benefit our campus community.”