When Katie joined her Connecticut university’s rugby team as a junior, she was already years into an on-again, off-again romantic entanglement with another player. During their shared senior year, Katie recounts, the woman emotionally and sexually abused her. Violence within the close-knit, mostly queer rugby community went largely unacknowledged, but Katie eventually learned that this same teammate had hurt another player as well. She needed to be stopped.
Yet Katie decided not to file a formal complaint with her college’s disciplinary board. She wanted this woman she had loved, a first-generation college student, to graduate on time. And, more importantly, Katie did not think a suspension or expulsion would further her ultimate goal: “I wanted her to understand why what she was doing was wrong.” She also wanted the rugby community to hold this woman accountable and play a role in preventing future violence.
The national dialogue about campus sexual violence has focused largely on punishment: why students who have done terrible harm have not been punished, what kinds of acts should be punishable, whether current methods of punishment are unfair to one party or the other. But this fixation on rare suspensions and expulsions ignores many students who wish their schools would attempt to rebuild, and not only sanction, in the aftermath of their assault or abuse.
A report released last Wednesday by a group of researchers at Skidmore College’s Campus PRISM Project proposes a solution: restorative justice for campus gender violence. “Restorative justice” is a term thrown around a lot, sometimes inaccurately, to describe a wide range of practices that foster conversation between the wronged and wrongdoers. At their best, the complex, time-intensive processes give form to the core commitments of restorative justice: focusing on the needs of survivors and engaging all involved parties, including the wrongdoer and larger community, in developing meaningful, tailored solutions—which may include punishment as one factor among many.
The new report urges schools to consider piloting one popular “RJ” model, known as restorative conferencing. After intensive preparation, participants—who may choose RJ over other, more traditional disciplinary options—sit around a table with a facilitator, who encourages dialogue with a carefully prepared script. The parties discuss the harm and then, together, develop a detailed timeline to restore the harm done and reintegrate the wrongdoer. This alternative to adversarial hearings, the Skidmore researchers believe, will better address the real needs of survivors and offenders while avoiding the trauma of antagonistic disciplinary clashes. Unlike a traditional hearing, RJ requires the accused to admit wrongdoing before the process even begins; the question at issue is what can be done to remedy the harm, not whether it happened. (Neither party may be forced to participate in RJ, so accused students who maintain their innocence are routed to standard discipline processes.)