Rebuilding Broken Trust in a College Community

by Julia Steiny

Professor David Karp runs a Restorative Justice initiative at Skidmore College and researches college-student discipline practices.  He tells this story:  Two students at a Colorado college got the brilliant idea that a prank could liven up a lecture class they found boring.  They would release a big bull snake during class.  These snakes have no venom, but look and rattle like rattlesnakes.  So, student #1 would leave a backpack containing the snake under a seat, unzip the pack and take off.  Student #2, looking to beef up his social life, would leap into the fray when the snake terrified his fellow students and become the people’s hero by bravely handling a harmless snake.

But as the drama played out, a biology major recognized the bull snake immediately and proceeded to handle it safely, grasping it just below the head.  Her educated response was ruining Student #2′s role as savior, so he grabbed the snake’s tail to get it away from her.  She lost her grip, and in the confusion, the snake bit her.  Instantly a sexy heroic act became a case of serious misconduct that was turned over to campus disciplinary officers.

Karp began his career as a researcher in law and criminal justice, but was surprised to discover that that colleges’ attitude to misconduct is not hugely different from the judicial system’s approach. Which is weird.  So his research shifted from prisons to colleges.

“As our trust in you diminishes, we’re going to work on getting rid of you.”

Karp explains that colleges have two responses to harmful behavior.  One is to impose harsh authoritarian punishment.  As he knew well from studying America’s over-flowing prison system, America is deeply committed to using punishment as a “solution” to anti-social behavior.  Historically, for colleges that’s meant 1960s scenes of protests and police beating students.  Think Kent State.

Or as a second option, Karp says, “Campus administrators search for alternatives that look like legalistic replications of ‘due process.’  There’s little talk about moral context or the consequences to the community — just discussions about whether procedures were followed.  Legal codes are content-free rules, deaf to circumstances.  Lawyers recommend that colleges create a ‘Model Student Conduct Code’ so if a student sues as a result of the college’s actions, the college will win the case.  There’s nothing about the reintegration of the student.”

These are colleges, mind you; supposedly teaching institutions.  And “discipline” means “to teach.”  Even so, depending on the offense, students might first lose social privileges or work-study jobs, then perhaps they’re barred from campus housing, and finally they’re expelled.  The message is:  “If you mess with us — whoever us is — we’ll try to change your behavior by hurting you with shunning or ostracism.”  Kick-out solutions to misbehavior are so accepted in our culture, we don’t question whether or not they work.  Actually, there’s no evidence they do.

“Trust is the gold standard of social capital.” 

Losing trust erodes any group’s willingness to cooperate and collaborate.  But how and where does anyone learn to repair broken trust when they’re thrown out of the community?  Putting the problem out of sight only gets rid of the person, not the problem.  The conflict remains unresolved.  So how do we build communities where each member has faith that however painful it’s going to be, the parties can work together to resolve conflict?  Healthy communities are made up of members who trust that talking an issue through, in a structured, facilitated way, will maximize a good outcome.  No guarantee, mind you, but maximize the possibility.

In cases like the snake prank, Restorative Justice programs like Karp’s offer students and families two choices.  They can do it old-school, lawyer up and refuse to accept responsibility.  Or they can go to “conference.”  That means that after considerable preparation, trained restorative practitioners bring the parties together. The face-to-face conference gives victims the opportunity to talk about their experience and to find out what on earth the offender thought he was doing.  Cooperative offenders learn a lesson they will never forget.  And restorative justice research shows that victim satisfaction is overwhelmingly positive.  Being heard is huge.

Restoration is hard, often painful work. 

When the student who’d grabbed the snake came to conference, he got an earful from the bio major and others he’d terrified in that class, which couldn’t have been easy on him.  In the end, he agreed to a restitution plan that would reinstate him at the college, in good standing.  He wrote a research paper on the trauma he probably caused the snake.  But most importantly, he studied up on restorative responses to stupid behavior, and later gave workshops in restorative practices using his own story as an illustrative example.  He continued giving these workshops well after his restitution was complete.

In the short run, nothing is more convenient than the kick-out solution.  But by avoiding the work of unpacking the conflict, the community itself is weakened.  And really, none of the parties learns a thing.  Which is a crime on a college campus.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny