Criminal Justice practitioner brings restorative discipline pilot project to UTSA

03.02.18

Robert Rico, criminal justice lecturer and former law enforcement officer, leads a team of professionals within various departments at UTSA to implement restorative justice, an alternative approach to misconduct that emphasizes direct dialogue between the victim and the accused. UTSA is examining restorative justice practices and how they may be integrated with the current developmental conduct process using The E.P.I.C. Journey Sanctioning Model. The E.P.I.C. model was developed at UTSA and is a holistic approach that assesses and constructs intentional personal and experiential journeys for individual students aimed at transforming decision-making patterns. Acceptance of responsibility and repairing harm are principals shared by both E.P.I.C. and Restorative Justice. Restorative justice may be used in proactive ways and in multiple settings.

In October of 2017, Rico met individually with a few stakeholders of the restorative discipline project: Associate Dean of Students and Director of Student Conduct and Community Standards, Anne Jimenez, Chief of Police Gerald Lewis, and the Associate Director of Housing & Residence Life Marietta de la Rosa. He later met with the above parties along with Interim Assistant Chief of Police Captain Daniel Kiley, the Director of Housing Daniel Gockley, and Lydia Bueno, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Student Leadership Center and Student Center for Community Engagement and Inclusion to discuss how the pilot program could serve as a model for student success. All agreed that utilizing restorative practices in their settings would be beneficial.

Rico has trained a few staff in utilizing restorative justice techniques. The goal is to forge a strong collaboration with stakeholders at UTSA to build upon a key theme of President Taylor Eighmy’s strategic vision for cultivating a sense of community and enriching student experiences, especially as the student population continues to grow. Rico hopes that the pilot project will minimize student conflicts over time, strengthen relationships among the student body, and improve retention rates.

In 2012, Professor & University Distinguished Teaching Professor Marilyn Armour of the Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue at UT Austin, introduced the “restorative discipline” pilot program at Ed White Middle School, where Rico was the trainer and the consultant. The program served as an alternative to “zero tolerance” – consequences for which students receive harsh punishments, usually expulsion or suspension, for infractions of school policies. According to a second-year findings involving a three-year initiative at Ed White, truancy, bullying, in-school suspensions, and other conflicts declined by 75 percent. Other schools such as Skidmore College in New York, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Michigan State and James Madison College are also practicing restorative discipline. The Restorative Justice approach to discipline is emerging across the country in both research and application.

How will it work?

The department or organization practicing restorative discipline will assign a facilitator where all the parties involved sit in a circle. Each person holds an object or “talking piece” to indicate it is his or her turn to speak. While one person is speaking, everyone else listens without interrupting. At the end of the conversation, the offender tries to recognize how the crime caused harm and what needs to be done to repair the harm. These circles may reach a consensus based-solution that emphasizes mutual respect.

Lydia Bueno wants to train her staff to teach students how to use restorative justice in their everyday lives. For example, students are required to do a reflection in some of their involvements such as the Civil Rights and Social Justice Trip, an intensive immersion experience where UTSA students explore the ongoing legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. Sometimes in the reflections, students express differences in opinion, especially when sensitive topics arise.

“With restorative justice, students learn valuable tools such as openness and honesty when communicating,” said Bueno. “Everyone is included and treated the same.”

“Restorative Justice will bring tremendous impact to UTSA,” said Rico.

“The principles of restorative justice are very closely aligned with President Eighmy’s strategic vision to foster exceptional student experiences,” explained Rico. These principles involve inclusivity, honesty, accountability, and trustworthiness – all values that develop their sense of belonging.”

“Through the resolution of conflicts using a restorative justice approach, studies have shown that suspension or expulsion minimizes in school settings, and students feel less of an outcast." said Rico. “Rebuilding relationships among the student body, faculty members, and staff can lead to student success, inclusion and retention,” Rico stated.

The pilot program is set to roll out officially in the fall of 2019.

Learn more about restorative justice by visiting the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice.

For questions, please email Robert Rico in the Department of Criminal Justice at robert.rico@utsa.edu