Seek Justice, Avoid Blame

When an offender or group of offenders is identified, there is a desire among some people to focus solely on discipline and punishment. Appropriate action should be taken against any offender. If a crime has occurred, that likely will be in the hands of law enforcement and courts. If a crime has not occurred, let school policy be your guide.

Violent offenses, of course, require stern, nonnegotiable consequences, including separation from the school through suspension or expulsion. Inform the offender and their adult family members about community counseling services that may be helpful. If a student’s bullying or abusive behavior is chronic, push for a psychological evaluation that may reveal mental, emotional or behavioral issues that need attention.

Whether the incident was violent or nonviolent, one of your most important tasks as an administrator is to focus on restoration and not merely punishment. Bias-based incidents are ripe occasions for education. Fear and ignorance are often at least partially to blame for this type of incident. This crisis is an opportunity to teach about diversity, to help guide students to a deeper understanding that our diversity is a powerful force for good, binding us by our common humanity.

Here are three key issues to consider:

The power of policy. 

Understandably, targeted students and their families may judge some disciplinary measures to be ineffective or too lenient. This is less likely to happen if schools have addressed harassment and bias-motivated incidents in their policies, particularly policies that have been well-publicized and reviewed by the school and the community at large. Be open to the need for change; use this incident as an opportunity to review and improve policy.

Fair enforcement. 

When incidents do occur, it is crucial that schools enforce the consequences fairly and without regard to the offender’s status. If some offenders seem to be treated more leniently than others, the person harmed and the school community will have little sense of justice and closure. Offenders also will be less likely to change their behavior, and those harmed may feel more vulnerable and be less likely to report future abuses. This dynamic can contribute to a divisive and unsafe school environment.

A community approach. 

Alliances with parents and caregivers, community or service organizations and advocacy groups can help school officials develop more creative consequences that will require offenders to face the destructive nature of what they did and perhaps even help them take steps to repair the damage they have done. Dialogue groups and peer mediation programs are particularly helpful for incidents involving large groups of students. Some communities also have restorative-justice programs, which can help. Los Angeles County, for example, created JOLT (Juvenile Offenders Learning Tolerance), a program aimed to provide education and awareness to first-time hate crime offenders.