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Restorative Justice: Putting an End to Retention-Unfriendly Suspensions and Expulsions

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by Ellica Valentino
Freelance Writer

Like many institutions, Vermont\’s Hudson College recently revised its conduct hearing process, moving away from a formal courtroom setting to a less adversarial model. Instead of meeting on opposite sides of a boardroom table, Hudson College’s accused students and hearing officers now meet outside on the campus green. Attendees sit in a circle, each taking turns holding a rock to symbolize their time to speak. Using a philosophy based on the Restorative Justice model, which is commonly used by the Vermont Department of Corrections, Hudson\’s new process focuses on victims\’ making a list of all the “wrongs” inflicted upon them an incident, and, if the accused students take responsibility for the policy violation(s), the perpetrators are invited to design their own punishments.

Ben Sternstein and Jacob Brown, sophomores at Hudson, a small, private, liberal arts institution, were involved in a recent case. During a disciplinary hearing in May, they admitted to stealing a college television, lighting it on fire and throwing it out their 10th floor dorm room window. The TV landed on top of Timothy Pennington, a first-year student who was sneaking a 12 pack of beer into his dorm room. Unfortunately, the beers were smashed and Timothy was transported to the hospital, where he remains in a coma.

Sternstein and Brown said they threw the TV out the window because “it had not worked properly all semester.”

Had Hudson College’s previous disciplinary precedent been used, such dangerous and egregious violations would have resulted in suspension or expulsion. But, thanks to the campus’s new Restorative Justice process, the students admitted their responsibility and developed the following sanctions for themselves:

1)For breaking the TV, the students will host a community mural-making night to paint a picture on the wall where the TV used to be.

2)To make up for inconveniences to Campus Safety, ambulance staff, and the Hudson Fire Department, the students will volunteer one hour for “ride-alongs,” assisting each of the three forces in responding to emergencies.

3)Because Timothy Pennington was put into a coma, the students will pay restitution for the $10.79 Pennington paid for the beer and carry his book bag to and from class for him during the fall semester (pending Pennington\’s release from the ICU).

Executive director of judicial affairs, Gary Keenan, was pleased with the outcome of the hearing, stating, “The Restorative Justice process allows us to keep students on campus during their probation, instead of sending them away from the college. It\’s an excellent retention strategy.” When asked about Pennington’s state, Keenan said “Timothy is underage, and Hudson College does not have an amnesty policy, so we will hold a hearing for his alcohol infraction as soon as he\’s out of his coma.”