Eradicating bullying: a restorative justice approach

It happens in every aspect of our lives.

We label people. We label ourselves. We need labels to make sure someone or something fits into an easy-to-understand compartment before moving on with our lives.

For children, labels are a bit less complicated and a bit more straightforward but two in particular can have lasting and detrimental impacts for a child: The labels of “bully” and “victim.”

Ashley McGuire, founder of San Diego-based LifePlay Productions, avoids these labels entirely. Why? Because those labels stick – be it for a day, a week or a lifetime. once branded a bully (or a victim), a child must then find a way to lose that moniker. Instead, McGuire says, she focuses on conflict.

“If we talk about it in terms of conflict,” she says, “there are no labels and it’s something that everybody deals with versus this big scary thing. Because every single person on this planet deals with conflict of some sort.”

McGuire founded LifePlay Productions more than a decade ago to use theater and improv to provide children with the necessary tools to handle day-to-day conflicts.

With a background in theater and directing, McGuire saw firsthand the potential of using theater to teach interpersonal communication skills.

“When you’re studying acting, you’re studying human nature,” she says, “The more you learn about how humans communicate and what causes conflict …if you’re really paying attention, you basically get a primer for how to be a good person and how to be a good communicator.”

McGuire and her team of professional actors have worked with schools throughout southern California, using the stage as a way to connect with students and empower them with the necessary tools to resolve conflict.

With 11 years of experience working with children in these one-on-one and group settings, McGuire says the bigger picture gradually came into view and with it came a shift in her vision for LifePlay – a vision that, once enforced, had the power to eradicate schoolyard bullying entirely.

Enter the philosophy of restorative justice.

Restorative justice focuses on repairing harm caused by a wrongdoing versus the traditional justice system, which emphasizes punishing the wrongdoer.

The philosophy of restorative justice has existed for nearly 40 years, McGuire says, but has only in the last 15 or so years began working its way into classroom settings.

She explains that the traditional justice system asks three questions: 1) Which law or rule was broken; 2) Who did it; and 3) What will the punishment be?

The restorative justice system asks three similar, yet slightly modified questions: 1) What happened; 2) Why did it happen; and 3) What can we do to repair the harm?

Ultimately, according to McGuire, the goal of restorative justice “is never punishment, the goal is to repair the community.”

So how does this eliminate bullying?

“When you have a strong community where conflict is addressed this way, you don’t have bullying,” she says. “It doesn’t exist. There’s no reason for it. Every student knows how to appropriately express themselves. Every student knows how to get help. Every student feels like a valuable and contributing member of their community.

The San Diego Unified School District has recently revised its suspension and expulsion policies, incorporating the restorative justice philosophy into its disciplinary practices and procedures.

According to Vernon Moore, executive director of SDUSD’s Office of Youth Advocacy, these revisions were made to remain current with state education codes but also because “many studies have come out to suggest that zero-tolerance as a policy doesn’t really work. It really just ends up with a lot of expulsions, not necessarily keeping our campuses any safer than what they were.”

Restorative justice offers scenarios and resolutions that zero-tolerance policies would never have allowed, says Moore. This approach encourages open conversation in a “highly facilitated, highly structured way” with the entire community to address the harm that’s been done rather than place blame and dole out punishments.

These conversations not only enable students to express their thoughts and feelings on the issue, but also empowers them to help find a solution.

“When you ask a Kindergartner, first-, second-, tenth-, twelfth-grader what they think and you ask them they would do to solve something, the answers are mind-blowing,” McGuire says. “So [these discussions] heal the entire community and the beautiful thing about it is, [a child] isn’t being shamed for his behavior, he’s being supported to be better. And [another child] is not a victim.”

McGuire is currently working on her first book discussing restorative justice and engages in public speaking events across the country.

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