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American U. plans ‘restorative justice’ sanctions against students who commit acts of bias

Get ready for three new diversity classes

If you are reported for “bias” at American University, there’s a chance you could be gently “restored” rather than severely punished.

Provost Scott Bass and Vice President of Campus Life Gail Hanson sent a memo to students last week that featured three dozen “action steps” it is taking in response to two racial incidents involving bananas this semester.

The lengthy list of proposals includes curriculum changes and enhancements to the student code to specifically target bias incidents.

The memo suggests the administration thinks bias incidents are being underreported – and that it wants students to report them more frequently.

MORE: Professors boost ‘restorative justice’ for campus rape cases

‘Game changers’

American has suffered through weeks of protests, hand-wringing and national outrage in response to two incidents: a banana thrown at a female African-American student, and a rotten banana and alleged drawing of genitalia left on a black woman’s door. (The banana-throwers have been disciplined but the university refuses to say how.)

Titled “Toward Greater Inclusion,” the memo says Bass and Hanson have met with department chairs, program directors and student leaders in the previous week, as well as held a conference call with alumni and had “many communications” with students’ parents.

They promise to deliver “game changers – ideas that will radically impact the campus climate in positive ways” – in an update to its spring “inclusion” plan.

One such game changer is using a “restorative justice” approach to punish students for bias-related incidents.

“When Student Conduct Code violations involve student victims, the Office of Student Conduct is prepared to integrate restorative justice into the inventory of sanctions imposed in such cases,” the action item reads. “The Conduct Code will need to be amended accordingly.”

MORE: American refuses to say how it punished banana-throwers

The memo doesn’t define restorative justice, but in other contexts the phrase generally describes sanctions imposed on an accused person that offer rehabilitation through reconciliation with victims and the community.

One of its foremost academic proponents, the University of Arizona’s Mary Koss, thinks it should be used in sexual assault cases because restorative justice “may more accurately represent what victims seek from justice.”

The public school system in St. Paul, Minn., has also spent $4.5 million on restorative-justice programs as an alternative to traditional punishments for student misbehavior.

Digging up more possible bias incidents

American is determined to make it easier to report bias incidents, the memo says; Campus Life has already researched “bias response protocols” at other schools and involve students in considering different models.

It plans to share “aggregate data” on bias reports and how they were resolved, but needs to settle on reporting formats. The university’s policy on discrimination and harassment is also getting revised.

MORE: Throwing a banana is a ‘hate crime’

The university is reviewing its conduct process and outcomes related to racism and bias. Recommendations will be vetted with the Student Conduct Advisory Committee, and “wider student engagement” in code revisions “will be sought.”

In an item that resembles many universities’ attempts to increase reporting of sexual assault, the memo says American wants to “increase reporting and accountability” around bias incidents. It’s not clear how the university can do this; as the memo notes, bias incidents “seldom have an identified perpetrator.”

Diversity, diversity, diversity

The university is piloting two new courses for first-year students, “AU Experience 1&2,” which will eventually become mandatory, according to the memo.

The first “focuses on the transition to college and includes an introduction to campus climate, diversity, and inclusion,” while the second “focuses on identity, diversity, community, and inclusion.”

American plans to also introduce a new core curriculum with a diversity requirement – on top of the first-year diversity classes.

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The memo lists several efforts already under way on creating inclusive communities, recognizing implicit bias and promoting “social justice,” while faculty will undergo continuous training on “inclusive pedagogies and classroom dialogues.”

It says applicants for Campus Life jobs are being evaluated for “multicultural competence as an integral part” of the hiring process.

The university boasts that its most recent tenure-track hires have exceeded 20 percent “underrepresented” minorities, probably meaning non-Asian minorities, and that faculty search committees have been given “additional training” on recruiting diverse faculty.

The memo has fewer solutions for another student body demand, that American offer a “worldlier curriculum” that has both more study-abroad destinations and “more non-Western perspectives in approach to subject content.”

MORE: ‘Restorative justice’ costs taxpayers $4.5 million in one school district

Expertise on subjects such as Africa is “spread across a number of schools and colleges” at American, but the library has stepped up to help, the memo says. It offered to create “thematic directories” so students can easily identify courses of interest, such as “race, social justice, LGBTQ, political economy, etc.”

The memo reminds students that the university offers an abundance of mental health services, including free individual and group therapy sessions held by nine full-time staff clinicians and five full-time trainees. Bass and Hanson said they will request another clinician in the next budget.

Expanded mental health services – including 24/7 counseling center hours – was a hot topic in student government elections this spring.

MORE: Students promised 24-hour counseling, more ‘inclusion’

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About the Author
Ford Fischer -- American University

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