Watching students walk down the hallways, students will occasionally bump into each other; most often these minor incidents are followed with a quick but sincere, “I’m sorry.”
But when students make tremendously hurtful comments or--even worse--when confrontation becomes physical, they are much less likely to apologize. As a school administrator, I’m sure the aggressor’s refusal to apologize often may be because they don’t want to admit responsibility and be held accountable. But more often I think it’s something greater: Admitting wrongdoing requires tremendous strength, courage and character. The easier choice is to rationalize and frame their actions in a different manner.
So, instead of apologizing for a series of hurtful comments, it’s easier to say, “People joke around like that all of the time.” “It’s not my fault she’s so sensitive,” or “How was I supposed to know he’d react that way?”
The student who starts a physical confrontation will rationalize his/her actions, “I had no choice.” “It was his fault.” “She started it, I just finished it,” or “If I didn’t hit him…”
As educators, we cannot force students to apologize or to forgive. Both require tremendous compassion, courage, and character. The student targeted by hurtful comments or actions must believe that people make poor choices. A bullied student often relives the event in his/her mind, unable to push it out of their consciousness.
Herein lies the powerful lesson from Nelson Mandela’s life. A man that was imprisoned and tortured for twenty-seven years has every reason to be filled with hate and revenge. Upon his release from prison, however, Mandela called for forgiveness and reconciliation. While doing so endured him to many on the world scene, within South Africa his actions were not fully supported.
This year our school has started to implement restorative justice practices. While restorative justice never requires forgiveness, by providing students with an opportunity to achieve a shared understanding of how everyone has been affected by the incident often leads to forgiveness.
Through restorative justice, we create opportunities for students to become aware of the impact of their behavior, to take responsibility for their actions, and to make things right. For the person being harmed, it provides the opportunity to forgive.
In restorative conferencing, the person making the apology can no longer take the easy way out. He/she can no longer deflect blame or place the blame on someone else. In the traditional punitive system, the student could blame the other student and/or the school for the punishment. Restorative conferencing requires the person making the apology to identify the behavior for which they are apologizing and to explain why it was wrong and how it impacted others. Finally, he/she must commit to changing his/her behavior to ensure that it never happens again.
As a school leader, by reintegrating the harmer into the community as a valuable member of our school’s society, we model the power of forgiveness. Furthermore, restorative practices encourage accountability and responsibility—including apologizing and forgiving—through personal reflection.
Nelson Mandela embodied the ideals of restorative justice and forgiveness. As educators, we must strive to emulate these principles.