Julia Steiny: Punishment is Not Accountability


Webster’s Dictionary defines accountability as “The state of being liable to answer for one’s conduct.”  Everyone needs to be able to give an account for their actions at times.  In fact, they should expect to do so when they misbehave or just make mistakes.  We owe it to each other to dig into our thinking and feelings to articulate our side of the story.  The details are critical to understanding what happened and what will make things right.

Listening to someone unpack their mistakes takes patience.  But unless they do, how on earth can they learn not to do it again?  Who knows what relevant information gets missed when we rush to judgment?

A terrific high-school principal makes a serious mistake.

A principal well-versed in Restorative Practices, whom we’ll call Mr. Draco, tells this story about himself.  A student complained that her cell phone was stolen from her backpack.  Insult to injury, she’d earned the money to buy the phone herself.

Her teacher had taken the class outside on a lovely day, so the girl described the spot where students had parked their backpacks when the theft occurred.

Draco and a Restorative Dean (of Discipline) went through the security tapes.  The video was grainy, but they identified the thief as a girl who was constantly in trouble.  School meant nothing to her.  Teachers were good and sick of her, and everyone’s kinder, gentler efforts had failed to date.  Frankly, Draco was relieved she’d finally done something they could kick up to the police, who might be able to scare her into more cooperative behavior.

But before calling the cops, Draco called the mom.  He assured both her and the girl that if the phone were returned, the consequences would not include police.  The girl denied the allegation.  Mom flew into a giant rage, hollering about how the school always targets her daughter, trumping up all sorts of nonsense.  Draco assured them this was not trumped up and that they could come the next day to see the tape for themselves.  If the girl brought the phone, they’d figure out an appropriate restitution.

Discipline conversations were held in the Dean’s office, which happened to have new video equipment with crisper images.  Just to be sure, they looked again and lo, they’d been dead wrong.  The real culprit was someone else, a “good” girl.  In effect, they’d profiled the accused.  She’s a bad kid; it looked like her; done deal.

Draco was so freaked he called the Restorative Coordinator for advice.

OMG.  He’d jumped to conclusions.  No two ways about it.  He took great pride in his close-but-honest relationships with the kids.  And here he was guilty of the same knee-jerk behavior he tries to curb among the kids.  The day had been fast-moving, distracting, busy.  Could there be legal repercussions against him or the school?  His reputation would be shot among the parents.  This was catastrophic.

The Coordinator let him vent and then suggested taking a deep breath.  What restorative practice is needed here?  When a kid has done something wrong, what should happen?  Ah!!  Yes!!  Draco would own up to what he’d done and be accountable.  Mom and daughter might still be hideous to him; they had a right to be mad.  But at least he could be big enough to confess his poor judgment.

“I was wrong” was the first thing he said when the daughter opened the door.  Luckily they didn’t slam it in his face.  Instead, they heard him out.  All but cringing, he gave an honest account of what happened and why he’d jumped to conclusions.  He and the girl had had many run-ins.  If Mom and the girl saw the image in the grainy video, they’d see it did look a lot like her.  So it wasn’t nuts, just wrong.

He worried that if that’s how he’s thinking about her, maybe others are, too.  Mom and girl were pleased and grateful for his explanation and for letting her off the hook.  This apology was deeply satisfying.  Most importantly, his confessional point of view helped the girl see her behavior in a new light.  For once, they could talk about how to get her on a better track.  All of them felt better.  His relationship with the girl, still no angel, improved a lot.

Accountability does not mean punishment.  It’s not about paying for the crime.  In fact, punishing requires little or nothing of the culprit.  And compared with typical punishments, giving a full account of your behavior can feel like full-on torture.  You’re seeing yourself through the eyes of others.  Sometimes it’s not pretty.  But being forced to think twice is how we change behavior and develop a conscience.  Punishment is a useless distraction from the real work.

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