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Delivering justice in the schoolyard

'Schoolyard justice' bu Chris JohnstonIt was lunchtime. I was on playground duty. The day was hot and sultry and the kids were out of sorts as they grappled with the winning and losing of games. 

Michael and Sam, two of my active students, appeared before me babbling to gain my attention and frantically selling me their version of an event that had occurred on the handball court.

Under this barrage of information I called for time out. Moments later I was searching for Brian who had apparently been hurt in a scuffle between himself and Michael.

Brian was in tears. A sheen of skin had been removed from his right knee and his left hand was slightly grazed. Michael was into his mantra of accidental cause — 'He tripped over my foot' — while Sam was stuttering in astonishment. Sam had seen Michael deliberately push Brian off the handball line.

I attended to Brian to make sure there were no broken bones or internal injuries. I asked Brian if he was alright now. He nodded. 'You feel better?' I added. Brian sniffed lightly and glanced up at me. I saw an innocence that troubled me briefly.

But I was in the centre of this teeming non-linear world, warding off forces of turmoil and chaos, striving to bring resolution to the incident between Michael and Brian; so I had to work hard and fast.

I asked who had done what and brought quick resolution. I brought peace and order. I found out exactly what happened and Michael was reprimanded and told to apologise to Brian and sent to think about what he had done. It was a small incident in the day to day running of a school. Good. All sorted.

Or was it? What questions had I asked? Had I brought a sense of justice to all parties? What had Brian said? The fact was Brian had said not a word. He was a puppet in the whole exercise. But he had spoken, through his distress. His eyes had said, 'You think this is okay. I am not tough enough, am I.'

But I had arbitrated for Brian and delivered a legal response and a consequence for Michael. This is an important step. I had to punish Michael to make sure he did not do it again. This imperative drove me. By making Michael face me (as the big authority figure) he would see the errors of his ways and desist from further similar behaviour. I was a bullet proof policeman on another planet. 

But what was driving what I was doing? What would Michael or Brian or Sam learn from this experience? Would they be friends in an equal relationship? Am I able to look back on this incident and say, 'I am proud that these young people learned about justice through this experience?'

I had established safety. I was operating from what I believed to be a reputable and values based code of behaviour. The code I had absorbed as a young person was driving my practice. But, what is behind this code? The secret was before me. I had seen it in Brian's eyes. This fear casts innocents mute.

I did not realise it, but I was as mute as Brian and Michael. Punishment and fear are twins and their bittersweet play is compliance. This is the core of the code.

Is this the best we can do? Is conformity the measure of our success? What level of moral and character development are we developing within our students when our benchmark is a deep still water pond? True, the need for boundaries and limits are crucial, but when there is an absence of supportive and nurturing relationships, we create hollows in people that seed doubt and isolation.

Had I been inspired to ask appropriate questions, there was one person who could have provided me with understanding. Brian. Brian and all the Brians I had dealt with over the years. The Brians who had learned that silence is the way to peace, where resentment and pain can be buried deep.

My assumption was that I could reveal reality to Michael. But it was not me who Michael needed to hear from, it was Brian. Brian was the one who knew what had happened beneath the surface of the smiling pond.


Vic O'CallaghanVic O'Callaghan works in schools training teachers, students and parents in Restorative Practices.

Topic tags: Vic O'Callaghan, restorative justice, arbitration, schoolyard, school bullies, teachers, ethics



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Existing comments

As a primary teacher with 35-40 years experience of being on playground duty where one is constantly called on to be judge, jury and distributor of justice; when time, as well as justice, is of the absolute essence, this article today resonated so soundly. There were many many times I asked myself if I had done the "right" thing by all the actors in the playground drama. Had I resolved the dispute to the supreme satisfaction of all concerned? This article today hits the nail right on the head with its concern that "conformity is the measure of our success". From this drama and its resolution we move on to the next needy students without ever really knowing the real and vital consequences of our actions, what facts were absorbed, what attitudes were beginning to form in those young minds and hearts as a result of our intervention? Congratulations on this very thoughtful and sensitive article. I just wish it could be pinned on to every staffroom noticeboard in the country.

Carmel Bartlett | 01 February 2010  

As a retired teacher of some 30 years at high school level, I also can resonate with this account. Yes I will pass a copy onto my friends still in the job!

Gavin | 01 February 2010  

I agree. Only the bullied and pushed around can really tell us how it feels; and all that buried resentment and constant fear takes a great emotional and mental health toll - to say nothing of a spiritual toll - on people's lives over a number of years. It erodes their self esteem and can severely limit the achievement of their potential.

Silence to avoid further intimidation is definitely not God's way of justice! I guess it's up to us to speak out on the behalf of the poor and oppressed in every situation, as most of the prophets exhorted us. Trouble is, it has a high price for us too! I write as a victim of childhood bullying and as an adult confronter and 'speaker out' of bullying. Having 'learned' in childhood that speaking up earned a physical response, I now distrust many adults who show verbal or physical bullying traits, and many times I still retreat into a 'safe' silence!

Marilyn Obersby | 05 February 2010  

How true. Eventually I said to my son after years in primary school and ongoing frustration sometimes you have to retaliate. I can't, he said (a big strong boy) and I believe you will only have to do it once. Eventually he did - to both of them - and the principal's comment to me was that she was just waiting for him to do it. I was not impressed. It stopped there but continued at his secondary school and eventually he went that way himself. After considerable trauma and "unfortunate!" behaviour he came through at the other end and is now charming, compassionate and tolerant. But was it necessary?

a Mum | 05 February 2010