Posted on February 24, 2019 by Michelle Skidmore

robert rico (Feb. 25, 2019) — Restorative justice is a social movement that aims to institutionalize peaceful problem solving approaches in lieu of traditional disciplinary systems. It is largely used in schools as a health equity intervention and to reduce the nation's school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately impacts African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and youth with disabilities.

UTSA criminal justice professor Robert Rico is leading initiatives to help more schools adopt this constructive approach. Most recently, Rico led an effort to implement restorative justice processes in a case at a Texas university in which he and collaborators Kimberly Sullivan from UT Austin and David Karp, director of the restorative justice program at Skidmore College.

Rico and his colleagues were tapped to provide their restorative justice expertise to a Texas university which needed to resolve a controversial student conduct case. The issue stemmed from a private online chat in which a student leader suggested legalizing the shooting of immigrants who crossed the border.

Although offensive, the student's comments were protected by the First Amendment. Yet a punitive method could not be used to fix the problem, because a criminal act had not been committed.

Rico specializes in restorative justice and police-community relations. During his tenure as a police officer, he developed the Restorative Justice Program of Kendall County and served as the program coordinator.

"Restorative justice is about making things right and, as a peace officer, I found a relational avenue that permitted offenders and victims to come together for a peaceful dialogue to help resolve problems," said Rico. "It has proven to be an especially powerful experience for developing students, who are forced to look beyond their own behavior and consider how the other party feels."

In the First Amendment case, Rico and his colleagues recommended the restorative justice circle technique, which would include the student and the harmed parties. The process began with a meeting to assess the student's willingness to take responsibility for his comments and to ensure his participation was voluntary. They then put in place a restorative script that enabled the student to speak freely and describe what happened from his perspective.

The restorative justice circle lasted several hours. All parties contributed to the creation of shared values. The student who made the comments described how difficult life had been since the incident. He had lost a prominent role on campus that kept him highly engaged, and he was rejected from a job opportunity. He also lost many friends, experiences that left him feeling lonely, isolated, and ashamed.

When the restorative justice circle was formed, many harmed students had difficulty looking directly at him. By the end, most were making direct eye contact. Some shared things like, “I thought you were a monster and now I see you're just a human.”

By the end of the dialogue, Rico and his colleagues observed the student express genuine remorse for what he had said.

“Restorative justice is a powerful approach because it holds offenders accountable to others and seeks reparation to all stakeholders,” says Rico. “By the end of this case, the student offender offered an apology and expressed regret for his statements. He was vocal in saying that what he most wanted to do was to make the situation right.”

In the final phase of the intervention, a reparation plan was developed to address the harm. The plan outlined ways the university's administration could have better handled the matter. It also enlisted other members of the university to develop a more inclusive community and expand opportunities for diverse student input in community decisions.

Rico is the co-author of the book “Restorative Discipline and Practices” with Gayle Lang.

In the fall of 2012, he spearheaded and consulted for a restorative justice pilot program at Edward White Middle School in San Antonio .

— Michelle Skidmore