Finding an appropriate response to sexual assault has proven difficult for colleges around the country. Mandating that all reports of sexual violence be turned over to local law enforcement risks taking away victim’s control and forcing them to face the re-victimization inherent in the traditional approach to justice. But allowing school administrations to handle reports often leads to mishandling which hurts the victim and fails to hold the perpetrator accountable. Furthermore, schools which do take disciplinary actions against students accused of assault are generally unable to effectively respond to criticism that they are somehow violating the perpetrating student’s rights.
But at some colleges, restorative justice is being explored as an option to hold perpetrators accountable without subjecting victims to the pressures and victim-blaming of the criminal justice system. Restorative justice is a process that focuses on healing and accountability, rather than punishment. It removes certain pressures from victims because it does not require the vigorous investigation and evidence-gathering process that is so often re-traumatizing. It can be beneficial to perpetrators too; if they choose to engage with the process in good faith they have the opportunity to break toxic patterns and stop harmful behaviors.
Such was the case for two students from a school in the Northwest. NPR reports that the victim chose to pursue the restorative justice model because she wanted her attacker to “step up to the plate and take responsibility, and to be active in teaching others about this experience”. Her attacker apologized and together, they created an educational video about sexual assault that they presented to a variety of groups. In the video both describe their experience of the assault and in the process the perpetrator reveals the toxic ideas about sex and gender that affected he decisions to act aggressively. The video ends with him taking accountability for the fact that he has raped someone and that it’s an action he can’t take back.
There are many concerns about using the restorative justice approach for sexual assault, especially on college campuses. Improperly handled, this process can easily become just another way to shame and blame victims while letting perpetrators off the hook without consequences. But enacted from a victim-centered place, the process does offer an opportunity to repair harm and change behavior. A sociology professor interviewed for the NPR report suggested that focusing on healing and accountability rather than punishment creates space for perpetrators to examine their behavior honestly, rather than going on the defensive and denying any wrongdoing.
So how can schools provide a restorative justice option that actually serves victims and holds perpetrators to account? A peer-reviewed evaluation of restorative justice by research psychologist Mary Koss provides some useful clues. Her program applied a restorative justice process to 22 sexual assault cases for the study. In order to participate, both the offender and the victim had to meet with case managers individually first to understand the expectations and rules. The meetings between victims and offenders were carefully controlled down to who arrived at the location first. Victims had time to prepare their impact statements in advance, and were also provided with a stand-in to read the statement if they became too emotional or needed to remove themselves from the situation. Offenders were instructed not to apologize right away, and to engage fully with the process of accountability first. They left the interaction with a plan to make amends. Offenders were put under supervision for 1 year to ensure that they were fulfilling their plan.
Restorative justice will probably never be the only way we approach sexual violence. It requires remorse and a willingness to take accountability in the perpetrator that not everyone will have. And many experiences of violence and abuse can make it nearly impossible for a victim to engage with their abuser in this way. But having it as an option opens up possibilities for justice that is based in healing and accountability, through which perpetrators who are prepared to change and grow can do so, hopefully increasing safety for everyone.