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UC explores restorative justice in improving campus climate

A residence hall fire alarm is pulled as a drunken prank in the middle of the night. A fellow resident, who happens to be gay, witnesses it and confronts the culprit as the building is evacuated. In the exchange of words, the prankster utters a pejorative term for a homosexual man in a profanity-laced tirade.

Fortunately, the situation was just part of a role-playing exercise. Twenty-three student affairs staff members, from all 10 University of California campuses, took part in training for restorative justice, a conflict resolution process that UC is considering for use when dealing with incidents of intolerance or hate, particularly for conduct that, while offensive, may not violate any laws or policies.

The two-day training session at UCOP offered participants guidance in facilitating and implementing restorative justice in a campus community. The safety and engagement workgroup of President Mark Yudof’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate and the UC Student Association recommended an exploration by UC in implementing restorative justice at all its campuses.

Restorative justice provides “opportunities for education and dialog when addressing (campus climate) incidents, and these are opportunities we cannot afford to miss,” Yudof said in opening remarks for the training session on Thursday, Jan. 26.

Restorative justice is a collaborative, victim-offender reconciliation process developed for criminal cases but is being implemented by many universities for use in dealing with student conduct incidents.

Campus climate came into focus at UC during the past two years after a series of highly charged racial, religious and cultural incidents on some campuses.

When these incidents occur at universities, administrators often are put in the precarious position of trying to balance the right to free speech while also striving to create a campus climate that is positive and inclusive.

“Not every wrong has a legal remedy. Students may say things that are hurtful to members of our campus community,” Yudof said. “Hurtful speech may be constitutionally protected and not subject to student discipline codes, but it’s still a wrong and still offends some in our community.”

The training was facilitated by David Karp, the associate dean of student affairs at Skidmore College, who is the author of Restorative Justice on the College Campus and a national authority on using the process in higher education. Co-facilitating was Duke Fisher, founder of Learning Laboratories, which provides training in restorative justice and conflict resolution.

“The core of it is about learning,” Karp said of the concept. “It’s an education process. We want students to be able to learn from their mistakes in a way that expresses the values of the institution.”

Restorative justice has been used in about 20 instances since 2002 at UC Santa Barbara and was used in one case at UCLA in 1999. A student group at the UC Berkeley School of Law has been providing restorative justice training on campus.

A central component of restorative justice is a facilitated discussion with all parties involved. Each person discusses how they were harmed or harmed others in an open dialogue. Offending parties must take responsibility for their actions. The goal for the group is to devise a way for the offending party to repair the harm while regaining trust and rebuilding relationships.

During the training session, participants held a mock facilitated session in the aftermath of the fire alarm incident. The prankster acknowledged an alcohol problem and how his actions impacted people. Other roles included his gay neighbor and other dorm residents. Group members explained how the incident affected them and offered suggestions to make amends, such as alcohol counseling.

If it were a real restorative justice mediation at a university, any remedies would have to be agreed upon by the group and campus administration.

The process may not be feasible for every situation, and people have to be willing participants for it to work. Nevertheless, restorative justice can be a useful tool in a university setting, said Laura Butler, the coordinator for leadership and judicial affairs in the Office of Student Life at UC Merced, who took part in the training.

“Conflict mediation is empowering,” Butler said. “We need to have more dialogue. I believe in the power of words and the concept of mediation.”

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