Educators are always trying to find innovative and effective ways to reach students academically, socially, and emotionally. And while discipline issues are part of a school environment, how they are handled can greatly impact these aforementioned factors, as well as the attitudes of students and the overall community.
Traditionally, the response to disruptive behavior has been punitive, with the level of punishment increasing with each subsequent “offense.” But what many educators – and society, for that matter – have found is that punishment does not deter these behaviors, and the cycle continues. A highly effective methodology now being used in schools is known as restorative justice, and it’s revolutionizing the way behavior is addressed in the modern education system.
What is Restorative Justice in Schools?
Inspired by ancient practices and values, restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes that strong positive relationships are the foundation of a thriving community. When harm happens all affected by wrongdoing are called to address needs and responsibilities, and to heal the harm to relationships as much as possible. These principles are being applied to workplaces, the justice system and, of course, schools.
Restorative justice in schools is both a philosophy and set of principles and practices that support educators and students in building strong relationships and addressing harmful incidences. RJP does this by supplementing or replacing traditional punitive measures and engaging all parties involved to work together to assess the problem and what caused it, determine fair repercussions or next steps, and determine ways to improve the student’s behavior and prevent future incidents. An EdWeek article outlined the primary aspects of restorative justice programs in practice:
- All involved parties discuss the incident in question.
- The person impacted by harm will be given the opportunity to share their feelings, as will the accused. Restorative practices must provide equal time to each party as the primary goal is not punishment, but restoration.
- Teachers/administrators will act as facilitators to the mediation, asking open-ended questions in an effort to foster reflection. These group meetings are known as restorative conferences or circles and are central to restorative justice practices.
- Questions posed to students are often; What happened? How were people impacted? What are their needs? What can be done to meet their needs and make things right?
- All involved parties decide on a course of action, and all parties work together to carry out that plan.
Community Involvement in Restorative Schools
Restorative justice programs aim to find the root cause of a student’s behavior, seek out tools to remedy these issues, and foster positive relationships that decrease the likelihood of reoccurrence. To achieve these goals and ensure participation from all parties, everyone in the school community has a role in fostering a restorative learning environment and hold individuals accountable.
The primary focus of restorative justice is on relationships, with the idea that by working together and investing time in proactive relationships as a school community, teacher-student and student-student relationships can be repaired and strengthened. Many schools are seeing great results – a recent study concluded that RJ programs can improve school climates and reduce student misbehavior and school discipline.
What Are Circles?
There are many models of restorative justice programs, but a central piece of any restorative practice in the classroom involves circles. The inspiration for circles comes from indigenous practices that invite everyone in a community to sit together in a circle to build community and work through problems as a cohesive unit to foster inclusions, support and healing.
Restorative justice in schools uses circles similarly, with the goal of building a community as a preventative tactic. Through circles, classroom communities can build class norms and expectations to create productive learning environments. Teachers (facilitators) lead students in circles of sharing, where they are free and safe to open up about their goals, fears or any other relevant topic. This is designed to build rapport amongst students, create a shared sense of trust and gives students the responsibility of helping to create the environment they will learn in.
Circles also come into play when a student acts out or an incident occurs. The parties involved and a teacher/facilitator will meet in a circle to:
- Discuss what happened
- Address the harm, victim’s needs and cause of the conflict
- Determine acceptable outcomes
- Carry out the plans of action
Because students are directly involved in every aspect of the mediation, including discussion and the plan of action, they are more likely to feel respected and invested in the restorative justice approach.
Restorative Justice vs. Current Misconduct Handling Structure in K-12 Schools
The following offers an example of potential student outcomes in a traditional punishment structure when compared to a school utilizing Restorative Justice.
The school security guard breaks it up and the students are sent to the principal's office for punishment.
Brad is shoved in the hallway and a scene ensues
Students and teachers intervene, de-escalates the situation and a time to meet is scheduled for that day.
Brad is suspended for 3 days and will have to serve detention when he returns to school.
Brad learns his fate
Facilitators, Brad and the other student meet in a restorative justice circle to discuss the fight, come to find it was a misunderstanding and each student agrees to write a letter of apology
Brad isn't in school, missing out on valuable learning opportunities and a scheduled session with a tutor.
The next day ...
Brad meets with his tutor, gets helo on an assignment he's struggled with and is more invested int he restorative school community.
Restorative Justice Example Scenario: K-12 Setting
The following is an example of a real incident where restorative justice practices were effectively used, as documented in a University of San Diego case study.
At a high school in San Diego, two students were involved in a fight based on their distinct racial backgrounds. There wasn't a long history of conflict between them but one day Alex, a Latino student, called Josh the ‘N’ word as he passed by. Josh confronted him and they ended up going to the bathroom. Alex threw the first punch and then Josh punched him back. Alex fell; while he was trying to get back up, he hit his head on a metal towel rack and he cut his head. Josh´s punch gave Alex a concussion. Josh ran away leaving Alex dizzy and bleeding in the bathroom. Whereas Alex initiated the fight, Josh caused the most physical harm. Some of Alex's injuries were not Josh’s fault. Josh and Alex were both impacted by harm and responsible for harm. The high school authorities decided to expel Josh from school that day of the fight. San Diego Unified proposed a restorative conference as an alternative to a high-level expulsion.
The facilitators contacted the students involved and asked them who should participate in the conference. Those in attendance the day of the conference included Alex´s parents, Josh´s mother, a friend of Alex, and a friend of Josh, a teacher that both of them trusted, the school's counselor, the Vice Principal President (VP), and the two facilitators. The facilitators met individually with each person before the conference to prepare them to discuss the individual harms, the broader impact of the fight, and how they would want to move forward. The conference lasted ninety minutes.
Flowers and stuffed animals related to the school's mascot comprised the centerpiece of the circle. The introductory question was a one-word check-in. Following the check-in round, Josh took responsibility for the harms he had caused. Next, Alex took responsibility for the harms he caused. The facilitators provided time for both Josh and Alex to reflect on the words they said to one another. Alex was remorseful. It was hard for him to recount the incident in front of his loved ones. Josh took responsibility for the harms he caused and shared his journey suffering racism on a regular basis. Then, the facilitators asked parents, friends, the teacher, the counselor, and the Vice Principal to share the impact the fight had from their perspective. The counselor and the teacher supported Alex and Josh as they processed the larger context of racism surrounding the conflict. According to the teacher and counselor, although the students made wrong choices on the day of the fight, they demonstrated good behavior on other occasions. The facilitators concluded the conference by asking the participants how they wish to move forward.
In the beginning, Alex’s parents were very upset. They didn´t want Josh to come back to school and wanted a refund for the medical bills. However, by the end of the conference, Alex’s parents developed a sense of empathy for Josh and his mother. Further, while initially skeptical of the process of hosting a restorative conference in place of relying on traditional forms of punishment, the Vice Principal was impressed when Alex´s parents requested that Josh returned to school immediately.
- Josh returned to school.
- Josh and Alex committed to having one on one sessions with the counselor to follow-up on the harms shared during the conference.
- Josh and Alex prepared an assembly to share with the larger student body the restorative process they went through, what they're doing to hold each other accountable, and what they've learned.
- Josh and Alex organized a series of speakers from the community to talk about racism and race relations.
- Josh and Alex, with the school support, organized a trip to the San Diego Museum of Man to continue learning about race.
What is a Restorative Justice Coordinator?
Transitioning to a Restorative Justice model is not an overnight process. To help make the evolution more seamless, many schools opt to hire a restorative justice coordinator. These trained professionals help facilitate every part of the restorative program changeover, which may include:
- Assess current school discipline practices and what the school needs are.
- Engage the entire school – students, teachers, admins, parents, the community – in discussions about restorative justice to foster buy-in from all parties.
- Develop a committee made up of representatives from each school group to help develop a collaborative action plan.
- Begin training small groups from within the school community.
- Roll out schoolwide restorative justice programs and practices.
- Nurture restorative practices in the classroom and overall school community by evaluating outcomes and feedback.
Restorative Justice Training for Educators
With restorative justice training for educators – either within their school as it implements restorative justice or on their own in a continuing education program – teachers can expect to become facilitators of such programs and advocates for its benefits. What’s more, teachers can also expect to learn how to:
- Understand the philosophy and practice of restorative justice from an ethical and philosophical consideration of the goals and consequences of various approaches to punishment
- Distinguish various applications of restorative justice from a cross-cultural perspective
- Demonstrate familiarity with the research on restorative justice including the criteria used for assessment of restorative programs
- Assess the strategies and effectiveness of restorative justice implementation through critical assessment of grassroots (bottom-up) and administrative (top-down) initiatives
- Understand the relationship between theory and practice of restorative justice
- Distinguish and apply various restorative practices, especially circles and conferencing
- Demonstrate competence in restorative process from pre-dialogue preparation to dialogue facilitation to post-dialogue mentoring and support
- Develop strong commitment to facilitator self-reflection and co-facilitator debriefing and support for ongoing skill development
- Create a community of practice for continued learning
- Practice the tenets of restorative leadership and consider one’s role with the larger restorative justice movement
How to Evaluate Restorative Justice's Impact in Schools
The impact of restorative justice programs may not be immediately evident, but there are certain hallmarks of Restorative Justice program effectiveness and steps you can take to increase the odds of success. The state of Illinois has a restorative justice implementation checklist they share to help streamline onboarding schools into restorative justice programs. Some examples of their must-complete tasks include:
- School disciplinary policy describes process for classroom incidents in which the student is not responsive to the Restorative Conversation.
- School has clear definitions for behaviors that interfere with academic and social success.
- All teachers, support staff and administrators receive ongoing professional development in use of restorative practices.
Following implementation, it is common practice for schools and school administrators to survey all participants to gauge the effectiveness of restorative justice programs. Some common survey questions to pose to teachers, students and others following program implementation include:
- Do they feel a greater sense of safety?
- An increased sense of belonging?
- Are relationships better among students and between students and adults?
- What about between the school, parents and community?
In addition to surveys, it is critical that schools keep comprehensive records of student attendance, discipline, instances of repeat offenses and behavior related to student-student and student-teacher relationships. Only in comparing those outcomes to data from years prior will schools see the true effectiveness and success of their restorative justice programs.
For school officials interested in becoming certified in restorative justice practices or bringing these programs to their school, consider getting a certificate in Restorative Justice Facilitation and Leadership from the University of San Diego. Our online program is designed for educators who want to become leaders in restorative justice programs, practitioners of restorative programs or just more knowledgeable on the subject. Please contact us to learn more about our online restorative justice training.