It's wednesday lunchtime, and the scene in the library at Canberra's Caroline Chisholm High School is familiar. A few swots are reading, some chess fiends are bent over their boards, and a punctilious librarian is attending to duties. But a passerby the previous evening would have stumbled on a most unusual sight: some 20 people-teachers, parents and students-seated in a circle, several teens crying as they relived their role in a big night gone wrong.
The school disco had been held in the school's gymnasium on March 15. For many pupils, the prospect of this event, staged in the heady atmosphere of night, was exhilarating. But for five Year 10 girls the thrill led to strife: all drank vodka before arriving at the disco, where one girl, "Emma," collapsed in the girls' bathroom. She was found by art teacher Kate Waite, who feared the girl might die before the ambulance arrived. Emma recovered in hospital; her drinking partners went home in disgrace.
At most Australian schools, Emma and her friends could have expected a week's suspension and a lecture from their principal. But that's not how things are done at Caroline Chisholm. The 720-student school has embraced a disciplinary system called restorative justice, which brings together in conference all those affected by a wrongdoing. During a cathartic discussion, offenders face their victims and are shamed into acknowledging the pain they've caused. In the case of the five girls-whose "victims" were teachers, like Waite, who had been distressed by their behavior-the school deemed the conference sufficient penalty. "It gave them a powerful, dreadful experience," says principal Allen Brooke, "not because it was punitive but because it was emotionally draining."
Some supporters of the approach-which can be used in cases as diverse as teasing and gang fighting-say its benefits go far beyond nudging normally well-behaved students like Emma's group back on course. They claim it could prevent some of today's school recalcitrants from becoming tomorrow's criminals. But critics argue it's soft and misguided justice. Says Steven Kugel, a Sydney father of three school-age boys: "Some kids will need 10 seconds to work out that, so long as they can fake remorse, they'll get away with almost anything."
In the late 1990s, while restorative justice was petering out as an experimental tool in the New South Wales juvenile justice system, it crept into public schools in Sydney, where trials in several districts include children as young as eight. The practice has now spread to Canberra, where Caroline Chisholm has made up for lost time with a training blitz: by the end of this month a quarter of its 60 teachers will have learned the restorative approach. This requires teachers to replace finger-wagging with questions: What were you thinking about at the time? Who do you think has been affected by your actions? Conferences aren't designed to establish guilt or innocence. Reserved for serious incidents such as racial taunting or violence, they're arranged when a student admits his or her wrongdoing and chooses a conference over standard punishment. Principal Brooke hopes conferences are "the future for school discipline." George Green, assistant director-general of student services in the N.S.W. Department of Education and Training, is also enthusiastic: "School community forums have been highly successful in resolving issues to the benefit of all involved."
Supporters of restorative justice stress its healing quality, but is it a naďve option? Some two decades after caning was outlawed in Australian schools, suspension figures suggest that student misbehavior is rising or teachers' tolerance is declining -or both. In Australian Capital Territory public schools in the four years to 1997, suspensions rose from 770 to 1,963. In 1999, in his first year as principal at Caroline Chisholm, Brooke ordered some 120 suspensions, twice the school's yearly average. He did so, he says, without satisfaction; indeed, the experience led him to consider alternatives. Suspensions at the school fell to 60 last year-a shift that Brooke hopes is a sign his school's culture is changing: more pupils "are learning to get on with people they don't know or don't understand."
To some students, restorative justice seems toothless. For Eve Mulkearns, a Year 10 pupil at a Catholic school on Sydney's North Shore, the ultimate deterrent from misbehavior is a three-hour Saturday
detention, which entails menial labor like scrubbing pots; a conference, by comparison, "doesn't sound too bad." Or effective, adds her friend Kate Flood: "Kids will just put on the sorrow for the benefit of the teachers." (Advocates of the approach say children overestimate teachers' gullibility.) But a Year 11 boy from the same area says he can see how conferencing might disrupt a teen's life: "The way it is now, your business doesn't really come home-this brings it straight to your parents," he says. "I see that as harsher than picking up rubbish for 15 minutes."
Principal Brooke's goal is school harmony, but other supporters of restorative justice are eyeing a bigger picture. Peta Blood is a former N.S.W. policewoman who quit the force in frustration two years ago as restorative justice fizzled as a policing practice. A co-founder of Circle Speak, which trains teachers in restorative methods, Blood says that for school troublemakers, there's "a clear pathway to theft and drug-related crime." When the problem is bullying, argues Brenda Morrison, of the Australian National University's Research School of Social Sciences, there can be dire consequences for offenders as well as victims. According to Morrison, Australian and American research suggests that bullies enter a cycle that "can lead to lives of crime and violence." Restorative justice can break that cycle by "building communities of care around individuals while not condoning harmful behavior," she says.
But Kerrie Powell, a clinical psychologist who in 30 years' practice has analyzed people at every stage of deviancy-from misbehaving kids to murderers-believes conferencing would have little effect on students with conditions like attention deficit disorder, which can repress conscience and self-control. "It's a wonderful idea," says Powell, "but I see it working in very few cases." For many trouble-prone kids, "confronting their victim wouldn't affect them. Some kids are cruel ... the idea that they've harmed someone may actually please them."
Caroline Chisholm executive teacher Kay Wulf concurs: "Conferences don't work with the hardcore kids." Wulf wants the school to continue holding conferences, but other staff, such as Heidi Quibell, have seen enough. The English and social science teacher attended one conference involving a pupil, "Lloyd," who had thrown a chair at a girl during a sport lesson. The boy was unresponsive and the facilitator kept rifling through her script for ideas about what to say next. The girl's parents, meanwhile, fumed. "As a member of staff, I was embarrassed," says Quibell, who believes Lloyd needed an iron-fisted response. "Having a girl say, 'I'm upset because he threw a chair at me' wasn't working."
Ex-cop Blood seems saddened by the attitude that some children are beyond help: "Hard-core kids do respond, just not as dramatically." The disco girls-"good girls" by all reports-certainly responded. Flippant at the start of their conference, they turned "ashen-faced," says Brooke, during the "life-changing" ordeal. The father of one of the girls says his daughter now views teachers differently-as people instead of cold authoritarians. Restorative justice helps some kids, some of the time. And in the post-cane era, many teachers will find that reason enough to keep it in their disciplinary kit bag.