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Fall 2001

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Rethinking campus justice

     Restorative justice, mediation, community service—they’re part of a new judicial system being instituted in Vermont and now sweeping the Skidmore campus as well.

     In dealing with misconduct, restorative justice replaces enmity with reconciliation, ostracism with reintegration, and retribution with restitution. At Skidmore, the system also reflects an effort to better integrate social and academic life: the introductory course in law and society is now closely linked to the college’s refashioned student judicial board.

     “Most judicial boards impose limitations or kick students out of college, which means people already operating on the fringes of the community are pushed further away,” says David Karp, a Skidmore sociologist whose research specialty is restorative justice. “With our new judicial board, which combines the academic and social integrity boards, the focus is on reintegration—and, with education or counseling, better integration—into the community.”

     Interestingly, Keith Kirshner ’02, president of the Student Government Association, says many students worry that “this restorative approach will be too soft and not truly reflect the significance of the offense. There may be cases when students simply are not looking to reintegrate a violator.”

     An example of a restorative-justice response: instead of paying an arbitrary fine, whose purpose is deterrent and/or punitive, students who vandalize a residence hall would agree to pay for repairs or work alongside the repair crew. Better yet, the offenders might organize a dormwide cleanup or repair day, to publicly demonstrate their commitment to make amends and to help restore community spirit and trust among all the dorm’s residents. The key, says Karp, is to understand and then repair the harm that was done to the social contract, so that community bonds are left strengthened, not strained.

     As a faculty member of Skidmore’s law and society program, Karp has helped reshape its introductory “Law, Citizenship, and Justice” course so that one of its three service-learning options is a term on the integrity board. Other board members, such as those appointed by the student senate, are required to sit in on several sessions of the course to gain both training and philosophical context. While Kirshner points out that the administration has taken more control of these procedures than student leaders might like, he allows that the law class may well offer more effective preparation than was previously available to judicial board members.

     “It makes serving on the board a much more thoughtful, educational experience,” argues Thomas “Pat” Oles, dean of student affairs and a social-work faculty member. And for offenders, he adds, the emphasis on accountability and amends means that “instead of being locked in an adversarial situation and just resenting the verdict, they actively encounter and consider the community’s reaction to their behavior.” —SR


© 2001 Skidmore College