Let me call him ‘Shiv’. The 19-year-old had been expelled from college for sexual harassment. As I chatted with him, I was curious to understand his perspective of the violation, which he immediately dismissed as “college creating a drama after all this #MeToo”.
As Shiv had been publicly shamed in the class, he was angry and dismissive of his role or the impact on the girl, whom I will call Tanya. When I asked him what his learning from this incident had been, he told me, “I am not sure if I even did anything wrong. Guess I will just have to be more cautious.”
It was only when he was given an emotionally safe space to express himself that he made a shift from a victimised position (“I have been wrongly accused”) to empathising, understanding the impact on Tanya and taking accountability.
As #MeToo gained steam in India, it had me rooting for the movement as I believed this was the only way we could start knocking down the culture of toxic misogyny and patriarchy. However, it is only recently — when the movement has percolated down to schools and colleges — that I have started questioning some of the punitive methods being used in the name of justice. Public humiliation, expulsions and social media shaming have become all too common ways to seek ‘revenge’ in cases of sexual transgression.
The young girls who were assaulted complained, the perpetrators admitted to the offence and they were immediately asked to leave. What’s the problem with that, you might ask? There has been a violation, so obviously, they need to be punished for it.
But schools and colleges cannot just wash their hands of the perpetrators by shaming and handing out injunctions. Understanding what is sexual violation, how they contributed to it and the impact on the victim is as much part of students’ education as managing their academics. Most importantly, this heavy-handed, authoritarian approach does not leave much room to hear the victim’s perspective or the community’s that has been shaken up by the incident.
Banging these young people to the ground till they admit ‘I am bad, I am horrible and I do not deserve to live’ reeks of retributive justice. These young people are just the symptoms of a society that is steeped in gender inequality and criminality. Punishing them is a quick fix for a patriarchal system that has festered for generations. The problem is too complex and deep rooted and we cannot suspend, banish and expel our way out of it.
What we need are respectful practices that aim to hear all perspectives, accept and acknowledge the harm done, address how the repair would be carried out and build trust and heal relationships. Seems far fetched? But that’s exactly what colleges and schools across the world are doing by using the principles of Restorative Justice (RJ). At the core of this practice is the belief that the problem is the problem and person is not the problem.
Let’s see how RJ would have played out if Shiv’s college had known how to facilitate the process.
1. Preparation: It is essential that first there is accurate fact-finding with a special focus on hearing Tanya’s perspective rather than going by rumours and hearsay. A faculty with a deep understanding of the philosophy of RJ could have prepared Shiv and Tanya for a meeting. If Tanya was feeling too vulnerable, then a possible video or her written statement could have been used. The relationship between both of them might have been very complex and there could be feelings of guilt or self-doubt in the latter that would need to be heard and understood.
2. Active accountability: After hearing Tanya, Shiv could have been made to think and accept responsibility for the damage caused by his actions. As this would be done in the most non-threatening and non-judgmental way, in a series of meetings, Shiv might have been more accepting and open.
3. Repair and restitution: An essential part of the RJ would have been Shiv’s apology to Tanya. It would have five elements to it – acknowledgement of harm caused, his role in the suffering caused, how it made him feel, statement of boundaries of what he would not do in future and a statement of commitment of what he would do instead. For example, seek counselling, community service and or even start a drive for awareness on gender equality.
4. Healing: Shiv’s classmates were extremely upset by his behaviour and felt they could not trust him again. He could have written another apology to them in the same lines with a clear statement of commitment.
5. Building emotionally safe spaces: Rather than a knee-jerk reaction, we need to have RJ squads in our schools and colleges that work at building emotionally safe spaces and address all transgressions and violations in the most respectful way. Students feel more comfortable reporting (and accepting responsibility) if apart from keeping silent or pressing charges, they have the third option which creates accountability and works towards peace.
Most of the times, if RJ practice is facilitated with a non-judgmental approach, sensitivity and mindfulness, the perpetrator can make a shift where they genuinely ‘get it’ and work hard to turn things around.
There might be times when the shift does not occur and the perpetrator minimises the damage, denies responsibility or takes to gaslighting the victim (manipulating the conversation to make the victim doubt their story). In such cases, the RJ process is used anyway for some level of accountability and learning before the student is, depending on the infraction, suspended, expelled or being made to face criminal charges.
This practice is rooted in similar traditions across the world, be it North or South America, Australia, New Zealand or even in India. I have memories of being witness to a gram panchayat in my grandmother’s village in Himachal where the goal was as much on healing the community as bringing justice to the victim.
RJ appeals to the conscience of each person, no matter how ‘damaged’ he or she is perceived to be. Most of the time young people are kept out of the disciplinary procedures, making them feel helpless, as if their voice does not matter.
David Karp, sociologist and writer of the Little Book of Restorative Justice for Colleges and Universities, puts it well: “The way we respond to a student’s misconduct symbolises the kind of society we aspire to be.”