Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A restorative response to the Veishea riot

From Toledo, IA
Not a new problem, apparently. (ISU student paper, 1940s ed.)
I'll never forget the Sunday afternoon during high school I came back to Iowa from a youth retreat in Kansas, and my dad telling me one of my high school classmates had been murdered at a party during Iowa State University's annual celebration, Veisha. It set off the most intense week of my entire high school experience, where every day felt like living in slow motion. That was 17 years ago.

But for the past 30 years or so, ISU's Veisha celebration has had a bit of an identity problem. What started out as a celebration of education at ISU had turned into an excuse for people to come from across the state, crash in their friends'/siblings' dorm rooms or apartments, and get really, really drunk. Riots have occurred enough times at Veisha for them to no longer be a surprise. - So when I heard this morning that there was yet another riot last night at Veisha (I didn't even know it was going on), I thought "Hmm," and went back to sipping my coffee.

But later in the day I looked at the Facebook wall of a friend of mine here in town who said "Veisha needs to be done, for good." - This guy is very well-known around town and I've likened his Facebook wall to the local online water cooler. When he says something, it seems half the town takes the time to have a conversation about it. - So there was a long, loooooong string of responses and many folks were quite adamant that those responsible should be "severely punished." I'm not so sure...

If you want folks to feel like they have a stake in the community that they've done some thing to harm (such as rioting, tipping over cars, knocking over light poles, etc.), the seemingly "natural" response of severe punishment is not the best one. Rushing to harsh judgment while passions are enflamed, no matter how lofty your intentions are, is a Bad Idea.

So I mused in a status update that no one responded to (besides my friend) that a restorative justice response to the latest Veisha riot would not only be interesting, it would do far more good than any form of severe punishment that could be doled out (one example was expulsion from school, if the perps were ISU students).

In the world of campus-based restorative justice, handling alcohol-related incidents of harm- and/or wrong-doing is quite common because, well, the abuse of alcohol on college campuses is so damned common. Anecdotal evidence from my friends who work in the campus RJ world (such as those at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA) is that students following a restorative process helps them develop a much stronger sense of personal responsibility and belonging in community, if that community helped them (rather than punished them) after an incident requiring some form of discipline or justice (putting things right).

So what might a process like that look like in the case of the Veisha riots? - It's an interesting question and I don't pretend I know the best way to structure it, but it could look something like this...

Have school and city officials come together in a facilitated dialogue with those were involved in the riots that were 1) caught/arrested or 2) are willing to step forward if promised a safe process with no (or limited) punitive sanctions, should they choose to go through this proposed restorative process. - One person was seriously injured last night, so it might also be good to include that person as well.

The particular style of RJ meeting could be multiple here. If it's a formal setting, as I'd assume it would be, I can envision it being a kind of "panel" approach with the process handled by a trained RJ facilitator. It would likely have to be closed to the public, though you would want to find a way to include a voice for the wider community. - Each party would be able to talk about the incident and how it impacted them. The RJ questions would be worked at: 1) Who was hurt?, 2) What are their needs?, and 3) Whose responsibilities are these to put things right? - City and school officials and the community would also want answers from those involved to the perennial question when things like this happen: Why?

Finally, this assembled and facilitated group would all have a stake in crafting an agreement about what is to be done to put things right. Apologies could come out of this, plans for community service, commitments to participate in anti-substance abuse programs like AA or speaking at anti-substance abuse events for even younger people in the community.

In summary, restorative justice would go a lot farther on the path to putting things right for everyone, rather than just harshly punishing those involved in last night's rioting. Do these young people need to take responsibility for their stupid actions? Absolutely. Far from being "soft" on those responsible, restorative justice is often experienced to be a more demanding approach for those needing to take responsibility. It's much harder to work with those you've hurt than it is to simply take a smack on the wrist or an expulsion from school, which could potentially only worsen the problematic behavior we're trying to correct.

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