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Restorative programs in the school setting

Published in: Restorative justice programs in Australia : a report to the Criminology Research Council
Heather Strang
March 2001

Restorative justice in the school setting began in 1994 when conferencing was first used in the Maroochydore area of southern Queensland. This was followed by a series of trials in 75 Queensland schools in 1995-96, where one person at each school underwent training in restorative techniques for dealing with disputes and conflict. As a result, 89 conferences were held in this pilot study dealing with a variety of incidents in the school environment, including assaults, property offences, truancy and drug offences, as well as bullying and harassment. Despite the favourable reception the pilot received, it did not gain the financial support of the Queensland Department of Education. Although some schools continue to use the program, its resource-intensiveness and the need for cultural change in dealing with behavioural management has meant that the program has been limited in its effectiveness.

However, lessons learned in Queensland have been put to good use in New South Wales, where conferencing was introduced in 1997 into some government schools as part of the NSW Department of Education's Alternative to Suspension project. A pilot of twenty conferences were run, about half of them for incidents of bullying. The Department assessed the program as the most successful technique so far tried in dealing with bullying (internal Departmental report) It has since been used in situations of conflict involving both students, staff and other members of the school community and a trial is underway involving the training so far of 150 school staff State-wide. A major outcome measure for the program is the number of days lost to suspension and exclusion, and to date the numbers have decreased markedly in the trial districts (David Moore, Transformative Justice Australia, personal communication). The training program has now been refined so that, instead of single individuals from schools attending the training, schools have most of their staff attend a one-day course on how to apply restorative justice principles in dealing more constructively with school incidents of conflict. The conferences are usually run by school counsellors who already have skills in this area, but the success of the program appears to depend on staff in general putting principles of restorative justice into practice in their day-to-day behavioural management of students and of workplace disputes.

In addition, Lewisham Primary School in Sydney has been the subject of a special behavioural management program under the auspices of the Department of Education. Every teacher in the school has been given twenty hours of training in restorative justice principles and techniques, followed by periodic 'booster' sessions, which has led to a change in behaviour management culture. This culture change seems to be a vital pre-requisite for restorative techniques to take root in the school setting, and failure to achieve it as was the case in Queensland (Thorsborne & Cameron, 2001) makes program success unlikely to be achieved.

In the Australian Capital Territory there has been considerable interest in restorative alternatives for behaviour management in schools. In 2000, the ACT Department of Education supported a training session by independent consultants on restorative principles and practices attended by twenty staff from eight schools. The Department recognises bullying and harassment as major problems, but also encourages the use of restorative conferencing in dealing with other conflicts, including conflict between staff in the workplace. An evaluation of the program in the primary, secondary and college sectors of ACT schooling is being undertaken by the Centre for Restorative Justice at the Australian National University.

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