What Is Restorative Justice?
Is it a solution for soaring dropout and expulsion rates? Is it a trendy term for no discipline at all? Find out as we explore this new education policy, Restorative Justice and Schools (Did You Get All the Facts?)
Criminal Justice System
The concept of restorative justice originated in the criminal justice system. It refers to philosophy and practice of learning how an offender can “restore” the victim that they harmed.
According to the Center for Justice and Reconciliation, it is “a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that allow all willing stakeholders to meet, although other approaches are available when that is impossible. This can lead to transformation of people, relationships and communities.”
In practical terms, it requires offenders to meet these conditions before they can reintegrate into society:
- Acknowledge the harm they did.
- Express remorse.
- Pay compensation or make other amends to their victim.
- Show a prepared, definite plan for avoiding that behavior in the future.
- Allow those most affected by the crime to have direct involvement in the process.
With its emphasis on personal responsibility and prevention, this approach has had some success in the criminal court system.
In recent years, schools have taken up the same policy. It goes by other names, like restorative practice, reflective practice or positive behavior.
Schools are increasingly adopting these policies to reduce school suspensions and dropouts. There is evidence that schools with this policy have seen significant drops in the rates of suspension and expulsion. Some schools have seen 30% to 40% reductions in these disciplinary actions.
How Do You Maintain Discipline in the Classroom?
In schools, the policy is seen as a better way to manage students who would normally be expelled or otherwise disciplined.
Instead of sending a student home for a minor infraction, teachers and fellow students sit down with the student to discuss what happened, why it was wrong and what can be done to prevent it. Expulsion and suspension are reserved for the worst offenders.
A pilot study of three California schools found that the schools cut their expulsion rates by more than 80% in 2011.
Proponents say that these policies work because they get students involved in the process.
They say that involving students as a community of shared responsibility gives them agency and accountability.
An article in We Are Teachers outlines a “best practices” model of a restorative policy with a real-life example.
It describes a school in Fresno, California, where two eighth-grade boys broke a paper towel dispenser in the bathroom. Rather than suspending the boys, the teacher had the school’s custodian come and show the boys how much work it took to replace a dispenser.
The boys had the option of paying for a new dispenser or working with the custodian to install the new one. The boys’ parents were also involved in the process.
Schools across the country are adopting these policies to keep students engaged at school and lower their high detention and dropout rates.
How Does It Work?
On her blog, teacher Jennifer Gonzalez explains some of the steps involved in a restorative policy. It requires regular, sometimes daily, meetings with students and teachers.
It also uses “circles of friendship,” in which teachers, students and sometimes other adults sit in a circle to discuss what happened and what the offender’s punishment should be.
As Gonzalez writes, “These circles can take many forms: mediation circles when a problem needs to be addressed, healing circles when group members are hurting or grieving or circles that form just for dialogue and storytelling. When circles are a regular part of the school culture, they give students a vehicle for communicating when problems arise, rather than handling them in less constructive ways.”
Major and Minor Infractions
Some teachers say that these policies are fine when it comes to minor infractions, but that restorative policies do nothing to help maintain discipline in the classroom. There is also some evidence that teachers are not reporting incidents of violence because of the push to keep expulsion rates low.
A 2016 New York Post article described the violence and other criminal behavior at a school in Queens.
“John Adams has become a school where rowdy teens rule. They curse and threaten teachers, refuse to put away their cellphones, roam the halls and openly deal drugs. Kids get away with it because [the principal] avoids suspending students to ‘keep the numbers down,’ teachers charged.”
Circle of Friends?
In one case in a San Francisco school, a female student was forced to take part in a “circle” with the two girls who brutally beat her. Her parents reported being pressured to take part in the procedure. Finally, the parents removed their daughter from the school. The two offenders remained.
The girl’s father told the Greater Good magazine that, “The total focus is on reintegrating the perpetrator. But too often, it comes at the expense of the victim.”
Where Is the Justice?
In Los Angeles, fed-up teachers complained to their union about school policies that endangered teachers and students who were trying to learn.
Union representative Art Lopez shared an email he wrote to the union with the Los Angeles Times:
“My teachers are at their breaking points. Everyone working here is highly aware of how the lack of consequences has affected the site. Teachers with a high number of students with discipline issues are walking a fine line between extreme stress and emotional breakdown.”
The article also quoted math teacher Matthew Lam, who said, “Where is the justice for the students who want to learn? I’m afraid our standards are getting lower and lower.”
A former teacher told the LA Progressive that the policies may work at some schools, but they didn’t work at his school:
“Examples of student misbehavior included students gambling for money in plain sight on the quad during instructional time, verbal bullying and harassment of students, staff, and faculty, fights on the quad and in classrooms. During my tenure there, a pellet gun was discharged in a classroom and the pellet struck a female student in the face.”
In Oklahoma, teachers complained to their union about the fact that suspensions were down, but violence and bad behavior were up. According to the union, 90% of the teachers noticed an increase in bad behavior. They also said that they got no support from administrators to discipline students.
One teacher told the Oklahoman, “I have 40 minutes of scheduled planning time and 30 minutes of scheduled lunch each day, but rarely get to utilize it because I am dealing with discipline issues. This year, I have acquired multiple bruises, bite marks and a knot on my head from a student pulling my hair so hard. This is frustrating and makes me feel helpless.”
What Do Studies Say?
Studies on these policies’ effectiveness are difficult to find. Many schools use a patchwork of practices instead of an integrated, holistic approach.
Two comprehensive studies looked at schools in Maine and Pittsburgh.
Writing in the Hechinger Report, Jill Barshay noted that in the Pittsburgh study, “The academic performance of middle schoolers actually worsened at schools that tried restorative justice. Math test scores deteriorated for black students in particular.”
The Maine study found no difference in outcomes among schools that used the policy and those that didn’t, but also concluded that “the fact that bullying and other school climate measures didn’t budge is another sign that [these] programs aren’t a slam dunk solution to addressing student misbehavior.”
Future of Classroom Discipline
Most of us agree that lowering expulsion rates is a worthwhile goal for any school. Maintaining discipline in the classroom is also a worthwhile goal. Schools should not let teachers and students live in fear of unruly, violent students who know they can get away with anything. Schools must find a balance between restorative methods and real consequences for the worst offenders.
Has Your School Tried Restorative Justice?
Were the results good, or has it left you feeling like lots of other teachers across the country…ready to find another way to earn an income?
There are all kinds of options out there. I encourage you to take a look at my #1 recommendation for escaping the classroom. It’s a great resource for learning how to promote yourself, your aspirations, and your special concerns. It’s also the place where I have learned everything you see on this website.
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