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Julia Wade

Restorative Justice – A tool for addressing college sexual misconduct

Educational Leadership Program dissertation brief by Julia Wade examines use of restorative justice to better address the needs of postsecondary students

Each year, thousands of college students experience some form of sexual assault. In a 2019 survey, the Association of American Universities reported that 13% of U.S. college students had experienced nonconsensual sexual contact. A little more than a quarter of undergraduate women reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact since enrolling in school. LGBTQ students also reported high rates of nonconsensual sexual contact. Responding to these incidents and meeting the needs of affected students is not a small challenge for colleges and universities.

Not all incidents require a response by a law enforcement agency or other formal administrative action, and those processes at times may not best meet the needs of students. Administrators in higher education need additional strategies, methods, and resources to respond to the needs of students who have experienced harm, as well as those who have caused it. These strategies include a process referred to as restorative justice. 

Julia Wade, a 2022 doctoral graduate of the Educational Leadership Program (ELP) at UCLA is the associate director for restorative practices at Loyola Marymount University (LMU). In her work, she hears and makes decisions about Title IX and sexual misconduct cases involving students. 

As an administrator at LMU and as a doctoral student in ELP, Wade grew interested in and began to explore the use of restorative justice methods in responding to sexual misconduct cases.

“I was wondering if there were other tools that could be helpful in addressing conflict on campus and learning more about mediation and restorative justice. And restorative justice seemed to offer another tool for our belt,“ Wade said. “I realized that ‘Hey, this is something that could be helpful.’ My interest zeroed in on sexual harm from working within my role in support services and how we were providing services to students who had experienced harm. It just made so much sense based on what I was seeing with how students were interacting with each other and our processes.”

Wade’s interest in restorative justice fueled her dissertation at UCLA. She has summarized her findings in a new ELP dissertation brief, “We’re Ready: Restorative Justice for College Sexual Misconduct.”

Wade’s dissertation brief is about the use of restorative justice practices in response to incidences of sexual harm on college campuses. In it, she makes the case that in some situations, restorative justice may meet the needs of students better than other approaches.

“Restorative justice involves all of those who are affected by an incident in making a decision that holds people accountable,” Wade said. “It looks different than other systems in that we are working to meet the needs of the person who was harmed in the most effective way and without causing more harm to others, including the person who may have originally caused the harm. I think it is very responsive to the needs of all of those involved, and it brings about accountability in a very specific way.” 

Wade’s study focused on administrators at four-year universities who were early adopters of restorative justice practices. Her research examines how they assessed their readiness for implementation of restorative justice practices and how they engaged in evaluation of these practices. The findings make clear that in considering implementation, an established foundation of restorative justice is needed. Buy-in, support, and collaboration from all participants is essential, and the capacity, training, and resources to do the work well are also critical. Administrators were especially mindful of students’ needs, interests, and desire for a voice in additional process options.

Her findings underscore the importance of staff capacity and training. Almost half of respondents said they needed to ensure they had enough staff and that staff had enough time to implement restorative justice practices. Staff supports, including administrative assistance and training, were also seen as key. Indeed, every administrator responding expressed the need to have funding for training to ensure readiness. Without training specific to restorative practices for cases of sexual harm, administrators said they would have had some hesitation in moving forward with implementation. 

“The training piece is huge. It requires resources and the development of just the right knowledge and skills,” Wade said. “And even if we can build collective understanding of the concepts and the philosophy around restorative justice, what does it mean to actually do it? Because if we jump into this too quickly, we could potentially cause more harm.”

Title IX regulation and campus policy language also pose challenges. Title IX regulations issued in 2020 require opportunities for cross examination during a live hearing, even though it may be traumatizing for those filing complaints. However, the regulations also allow for informal resolution, including restorative justice, to be used. Campuses that implemented restorative justice for sexual harm prior to the new Title IX regulations described being tolerant of the risk that would potentially come with it. 

Administrators also cited a need for clarity of campus policy and language defining the work of restorative practices and for ensuring that the language is clear and coherent for students. 

Notably, Wade’s research dissertation brief highlights the importance and challenges of evaluation and assessment for ongoing program improvement and responsiveness to student needs. Most administrators were not conducting formal evaluations, instead relying on student anecdotes and unstructured feedback. Staffing was cited as a challenge to evaluation, but administrators also shared concerns that conducting assessments may negatively impact students. 

“The assessment piece is not quite there yet. It’s not fully happening,” Wade said. “Some folks have figured out how to do this, but there is kind of a hesitation or a fear among administrators that in assessing or trying to understand how this works, they may further traumatize or negatively impact people who have already experienced sexual harm.” 

Wade adds, “I think the assessment piece is really important, because with a conversation about how great this is, without measures of the outcomes, we’re not going to get there. We need to have as much data as we can to continue to make the case for why this could create a better system.“

To further effective practice of restorative justice for sexual harm, the dissertation brief recommends that practitioners build and maintain collaborative relationships with Title IX and student conduct offices, and rely on knowledgeable, skilled, experienced staff. The brief also encourages the provision of training for staff and administrators to fully prepare for use of restorative justice practices, to strengthen evaluation, and to follow in the footsteps of those who have evaluated and learned from their work. The brief urges policymakers to allow for the continued offering of restorative justice, and to provide campuses with the time they will need to effectively execute new processes. 

“One thing that weighs on me about this is that I wonder if people even have a foundational understanding of what restorative justice is. That’s a big concern,” Wade said.

“I want this out in the world in a way that is going to be as clear and digestible for people as possible. My hope is that for folks who are already interested in restorative justice, this helps them make the case to their administration that there are valid reasons to move forward. And for those who are not yet thinking about using restorative justice to address sexual harm, that this brief can provide information about a reason to consider doing so. I hope this will help us talk about and shape what restorative justice should look like in the best way possible, and how it can be most helpful to the people who are most impacted—our students.”

“We’re Ready: Restorative Justice for College Sexual Misconduct,” is one in a series of dissertation briefs published by the UCLA Educational Leadership Program as part of an effort to elevate and share the research of practitioner-scholars who have taken part in the program. The full brief is available online here.