Examining Restorative Justice

Tuesday, Oct 23, 2018
by Benjamin Gelman, Pace Center Student Correspondent

In the midst of a busy week of midterms, Princeton students and local community members gathered in Maeder Hall at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment on Friday, Oct. 19 for a screening of the documentary “Circles.” The film follows Eric Butler, a leader in the restorative justice movement, and his efforts to improve the lives of students in Ralph J. Bunche High School in Oakland, California a school known for students with difficulties in behavior and academics. 

Butler’s restorative justice system works not through the threat of punishment, but through conversations, relationships, and understanding. As Butler says in the film, restorative justice consists of “guided intimate conversations to help kids make better choices and to not make choices for them.” The film covers several different cases that Butler deals with using restorative justice, including offering support to students with unresolved past trauma or those with incarcerated parents.

As the film depicts, this method is in stark contrast to the more traditional approach that students at Butler’s school typically faced beforehand, which consisted of suspension and harsh discipline. Other faculty at the school even criticize Butler, saying that “restorative justice removes the consequences for students.” However, Butler remains confident in his program, maintaining that suspensions for troubled youth would only perpetuate their issues. The only way to improve their lives, he says, is to engage with them and give them the tools to make the right decisions.

Circles Film Screening

Eric Butler, center, talks about restorative justice with is son Tre Thomas, left, and director of the film "Circles" Cassidy Friedman, right. Photo by Benjamin Gelman '22

Butler’s resolve is put to the test after his son, Tre Thomas, begins to have trouble with the law and with school. Despite the unfairness of the system towards his son, Butler does all he can to keep Tre on the right track. Eventually, Tre is transferred to Ralphe Bunche, completes the restorative justice program, and has his charges dismissed. 

The film concludes with Butler and his son moving to Texas for another job position, and with the fact that since Butler’s system was implemented, Ralphe Bunche has had no suspensions, no expulsions, no violent incidents, and a jump in their graduation rate from 68 percent to 92 percent.

After the screening, a question and answer section was held with Eric and Tre Butler, as well as with Cassidy Friedman, the director of “Circles." Eric discussed how Ralphe Bunche had been known as a school for “bad kids” and that “prior to me being hired, they had suspended 85 percent of the student body at some point.”

“Restorative justice allows us to come together to create our own justice” Butler explained, “and at Ralphe Bunche we created justice.”

When asked about how his ideas could be expanded into other communities that may be different from Oakland, Butler responded “It would look like this session, with people being curious. We would examine what it could be by answering each other's questions.”

Butler was also asked about whether he ever discussed systemic, political injustices that may affect his students’ ability to succeed, Butler responded “Yes, but in some cases there’s nothing we can do about the system, and right now I really need you to take that algebra test.”

Butler also explained how assumptions that teachers and students make about each other can drive them apart and inhibit any progress. As a visual demonstration, he asked Tre and Cassidy to act as a theoretical student and teacher, but every time an audience member gave an example of a negative stereotype, such as “this student is unmotivated” or “this teacher does not care about me”, they had to take a step away from each other. After a few moments, Tre and Cassidy were on opposite sides of the room.

“They are so far apart they can’t hear each other” said Butler. Positive assumptions, in contrast to negative prejudices, are the only thing that could bring them together and allow them to have a conversation and build a relationship.  Butler concluded the session by stressing the primacy of relationships in his ideas. “Relationships are built through our differences and our ability to understand each other” he said.

This event was sponsored by the University Center for Human Values, the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, the Program for Community-Engaged Scholarship, the Prison Teaching Initiative, the Petey Greene Program, and Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination.

Watch the trailer: