Applying a Restorative Justice Approach to Student Conduct

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A small but growing number of colleges and universities have been adopting restorative justice (RJ) processes as an alternative (in some cases) to traditional, sanctions-focused student conduct proceedings. Taking an RJ approach requires a philosophical shift for the student conduct office – it entails new sets of questions for student conduct hearings and an alert ear for cases in which there is the possibility to restore harm that’s been done, rather than simply (or only) penalize.

If a hearing indicates that restorative justice may be possible and desirable, RJ processes usually proceed to individual pre-conference meetings held with the offender and those harmed in the incident. Ultimately, if all parties are willing, the issue is dealt with through a group conference with trained facilitators. The goal of the conference is to arrive at a mutual understanding of the harm caused and a mutual agreement for how the harm will be repaired.

To learn more about how to make a restorative justice program most successful, we interviewed two officials from Colorado State University, which has frequently been recognized for its restorative justice and other student conduct programs. The two officials are Paul Osincup and Melissa Emerson, the associate and assistant directors of conflict resolution and student conduct services at CSU. Paul Osincup holds student conduct hearings; Melissa Emerson manages the restorative justice process once a student has been referred as a likely RJ candidate.

Here is their advice.

Criteria for Taking an RJ Approach

Emerson notes three core criteria for referring a student conduct case to restorative justice:

  • Some harm has been done to other parties
  • The offender expresses sincere remorse for the harm done
  • The victimized parties express a willingness for restoration

Citing a recent example, Emerson mentions the case of a student who, under the influence of alcohol, was unable to pay a taxi driver after receiving a ride home to the residence hall. Other passengers were involved, and the police were called. The case had criminal charges pending. During the conduct hearing, the student offender expressed that while he could easily compensate the other student passengers for the money they had to pay the driver, what he really desired was the opportunity to sit down, face-to-face, apologize for his actions, hear how it impacted the other students, and hear their thoughts on what he could do to make the situation right. This case was an ideal candidate for an RJ approach.

“When an agreement is drafted between the parties involved at the end of an RJ conference, we’ve found that often the offender and other parties collectively reach solutions for repairing the harm that extend far beyond the sanctions a hearing officer would have suggested. In one example, a vandalism incident, the offender offered in the agreement to put on an alcohol awareness event for their residence hall.”
Melissa Emerson, Colorado State University

Cases that are less appropriate for RJ include:

  • Cases in which the offender does not take responsibility for the harm caused
  • Cases in which the offender is seeking alternatives to a sanction they dislike (for example, if the victim wants the offender to move out of the residence hall and the offender simply isn’t willing to move, this is not an ideal situation for an RJ conference)
  • Cases involving sexual offenses

“For a pure restorative justice conference,” Osincup concludes, “we’re going to make sure that we have a pretty remorseful offender so that we don’t re-victimize the victim. The student doesn’t need to be a 10 on a 0-10 scale of remorse, but the student at least needs to be a 5.”

Options when a Student is Less Remorseful

There is one significant caveat to that. “If you’re only sending the most remorseful people to RJ,” Osincup warns, “you’re preaching to the choir, and the impact of your program will likely be minimal. Ultimately, you want the students who are less remorseful to see the impact of their actions and move voluntarily to take responsibility for that impact. That’s where you make a difference. Even if there isn’t an opportunity for restoration of a damaged relationship, there may be opportunity for transformation for the offender.”

To handle situations of this kind responsibly (and without re-victimizing the other parties involved in the incident), Osincup suggests considering measures like these:

  • Hold a conference with a “surrogate victim” – either an individual with RJ training or an individual who has had a similar experience, realizes the offender may not be fully remorseful, and understands the goals of the conference
  • Assemble a community impact or neighborhood impact panel – in effect, a panel of surrogate victims who can work to raise the offender’s awareness of the impact (for example, if the incident was a noise citation for an off-campus party, a neighborhood impact panel could talk with the offender about specific ways that the noise impacts the community)

Don’t Rely Only on Victim-Initiated Cases

CSU’s process is unique in that the conflict resolution officer meets with the person who caused the harm first before discussing the option of restorative justice with the parties harmed. Most other RJ programs are victim-driven. If most of your referrals come from student conduct, there are several advantages to meeting with the offender first:

  • You ensure that you’ve heard both sides of the story
  • You avoid raising false hopes for the victim by alerting them to a restorative process that the offender is not ready for
  • By determining first that the offender is ready, you avoid ruling out options other than an RJ conference in the event that the victim isn’t ready (for example, an offender who still wishes to repair harm might be able to conference with a surrogate victim or write an apology letter that can be delivered to the victim without an actual face-to-face conference)

Define a Clear Policy

Emerson and Osincup suggest that it’s critical to define a clear policy and a clear process, outlining:

  • Who makes the call on whether to refer a case to restorative justice?
  • When is a case appropriate for restorative justice versus traditional mediation and other options?

In the absence of a clear policy that is communicated both across the student conduct office and among senior administrators, there will be a greater risk of political pressures influencing the process. While cases of this kind may be rare, they can be prove extremely problematic when they do arise. For example, consider this scenario:


Several athletes cause harm to another student, and the grievance quickly involves the students, their parents, the athletics director, and the vice president of student affairs. In meeting with the students and their parents, the vice president, in a very well-meaning way, suggests the possibility of a restorative justice process, and there is immediate interest. However, this has all happened quickly and the hearing officer in student conduct has not yet received a full report or conducted a hearing. Now there is pressure from above to initiate an RJ conference (“we’ve already talked with the parents about it”), but when the conduct officer holds the hearing, there are red flags everywhere. The offenders are not remorseful, and the student conduct staff know that if they proceed with an RJ conference, it is highly unlikely to restore harm and may even make matters worse for some of the parties involved.

One of the things that happened in this scenario was that the vice president did not understand the criteria for referring students to restorative justice, and, with the best intentions, initiated the process him- or herself.

To avoid (or at least mitigate) situations of this kind, Emerson and Osincup stress the importance of defining the RJ process, getting a leadership stamp of approval on the policy, and communicating it with key people on campus.