Restorative justice is a process that facilitates community engagement, communication and a new approach to reparations from harm. The process has been used for centuries in Indigenous communities and offers a less punitive approach to resolve conflicts. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) recently began a pilot program to teach and spread restorative justice practices due to its potential impact within academic medicine. 

Right now, six people associated with the University of Minnesota Medical School were selected by the AAMC for the pilot program and will finish their training in the next few months. The cohort includes learners from the Medical School’s education realm, some from research and others are in administrative roles. Participants are Ricardo Battaglino, PhD, professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, Melissa Brunsvold, MD, associate professor in the Department of Surgery, Austin Calhoun, PhD, chief of staff for the Office of Medical Education, Catherine Mccarty, PhD, MPH, professor in the Department of Family Medicine and BioBehavioral Health and associate dean for research at the Medical School, Duluth Campus, Michele Morrissey, director of human resources for the Medical School, and Amanda Termuhlen, MD, professor in the Department of Pediatrics and associate dean for faculty affairs in the Office of Faculty Affairs.

“We’re going to learn how to facilitate restorative practices, and we’re going to be attending community building conferences just to get some experience with it. And then, our hope is to implement restorative justice as another tool that can be used to build community, respond to harm and make sure we’re being inclusive of all voices when making decisions,” Morrissey said.

In previous conflict resolution models, there’s usually separation between the perpetrator of the harm and those who were harmed without any input from the surrounding community. Restorative justice is a series of processes that recognizes alternatives to separation and punishment. It’s a pragmatic approach that emphasizes discourse between community members to build trust after someone’s actions have diminished it.

“I think it’s about conflict because we try to avoid conflict as much as possible, but it’s inevitable because we’re all different. If you have this community that is sharing a narrative and understanding one another, it’s much easier to manage that conflict—not if it arrives, but when it arrives. It’s about figuring out who we are as people and getting to appreciate that,” Dr. McCarty said. 

In addition to community building, restorative justice processes can be used to repair harm. Community members assess the situation, listen to varying perspectives and determine how to bring people together in a way that attempts to meet the needs of all parties involved. Restorative justice processes can also be used to appropriately reintegrate someone after separation. 

“The major thing that opened my eyes was this differentiation between what we typically do in separation and the punitive sanctions we use against people. It just leaves so many other impacted people without their voices being heard, and it really breaks down community building, engagement and a lot of processes that we try to do as we serve patients. The restorative justice process actually is the absolute opposite. It brings people together and invites them to share their concerns and their voice as part of a healing process. I think that makes us a more effective institution,” Dr. Termuhlen said. 

Restorative justice is unique because it bridges gaps rather than widening them. It has potential for a wide range of applications, including clinical ethical dilemmas, disagreements between individuals in different mission areas, mistreatment of students or for reintegration following a finding of sexual misconduct.

“I think it speaks to the core of what we do. We have multiple missions with one of them being taking care of people. The restorative justice process brings so many opportunities, and it’s not something that’s ever been done in any kind of big way across the Medical School. I think it aligns with the values of the Medical School in all of our mission areas. We’re here to heal. Restorative justice practices help healing at a variety of different levels,” Dr. Termuhlen said. 

Restorative justice is not a panacea though. It is also not applicable or effective in every situation. It’s a process that takes a lot of planning, preparation and time. Applying it into an academic medical center is a new initiative that will be augmented by some of the University’s existing resources. There’s already the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking in Duluth that’s widely known for restorative justice work and studies, in addition to the Student Conflict Resolution Center in Minneapolis.

Over the next two to three years, the group will analyze surveys on restorative justice practices and measure what some of the effects are while disseminating their own knowledge to build a network of people.

“Each of us will work together and practice building these restorative justice circles and learning the practices in a way that supports one another. The idea is to really build pilots from this pilot, and then to gradually build the number of people that are trained. We want to provide another option for healing communities within the Medical School, whether it’s faculty, students, trainees or staff,” Dr. Termuhlen said.