Study after study has affirmed that restorative justice initiatives in schools and courts produce positive outcomes, a conflict resolution professor told a conference gathered to discuss Malta’s first pilot project on restorative justice in schools.

Susan Hirsch, who is also a professor of anthropology at George Mason University in Washington DC, said the studies showed victims expressed more satisfaction at the results with such initiatives, and people who committed offences were much less likely to do so in the future.

“When restorative approaches are valued in a society, broader social benefits, such as collaboration, care for one another, and sustainability also become more possible,” Prof. Hirsch those who attended today’s virtual conference.

The conference, themed A Journey to Resolve Our Differences: Investing in Children, was organised by the Malta Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society in collaboration with Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and Education Minister Clifton Grima.

Victim and perpetrator listen to each other

Foundation chair and Eurochild president Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca said the only way forward for a peaceful co-existence was restorative practices, where the victim and perpetrator listened to each other.

“We need to resolve differences and conflicts, we need to understand each other, we need to empathise and respect one another. To do this, requires a change in culture and a mental shift, which means we need to invest in our children. They are the ones who can bring the much-needed change to drive a culture of positive peace in our society,” Ms Coleiro Preca said.

This conference, which brought together numerous educators, university academics, psychosocial professionals, other stakeholders and civil society organisations, will help to enhance Malta’s first pilot project on restorative justice in schools.

Prof. Hirsch, who is running a similar programme in the US, will be providing technical assistance to the Malta Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society in implementing this project, as the government works to develop the necessary legislation so that the concept of restorative justice is effectively implemented in Malta.

Dr Zammit Lewis said the government, together with MFWS, was working on introducing restorative justice mechanisms that did not rely on the justice system.

“We will start by investing in children to instil in them, from a young age, the value of seeking dialogue and communication over redress in the law courts.

“This innovative project complements the work carried out in the last months and will sow the seed to drive a shift in mentality. This project is testimony to this government’s investment in a more inclusive, empathetic society."

Latching onto this sentiment, Dr Grima spoke of how crucial it was for education to go beyond the curriculum and subjects taught in class.

“Education has to be a holistic one; one that raises good citizens. In this way, we will be investing in tomorrow’s society and the formation of citizens who will be entrusted with leading the country in the future… a holistic education that leads to personal development, better dialogue, respect and empathy,” he added.

Holistic, multidisciplinary restorative justice programmes — that emphasise repairing the harm caused by inappropriate and undignified behaviour — have led to promising results when it came to reducing adverse effects of conflict among children. Children involved in such programmes abroad have also shown fewer tendencies towards violence.

Since the launch of the process in December, a number of workshops have been carried out with schoolchildren where the effectiveness of discussion over punishment, coupled with the importance of forgiveness were raised.

Some struggled with anger issues and said they “would break the iPad” on a friend’s head or “throw the mobile out of the window” to exact revenge or be “fair and square”.

While discussing the impact of punishment, some children said this only led to resentment and anger without really affecting a change, while others felt a certain level of fear was necessary to control behaviour.

Overall, the children felt the way forward was a change in discourse where mutual understanding and collaboration — not punishment — led to positive behaviour.

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