Restorative Justice and Schools (Did You Get All the Facts?)

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.

From the Courts to the Schools

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.

Where Has It Been Tried?

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.

One Example

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.

Students Gone Wild

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.”

More Infractions

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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10 thoughts on “Restorative Justice and Schools (Did You Get All the Facts?)”

  1. A few weeks back I saw a documentary about schools who instead of putting students in detention or expelling them, they sit them down and “make” them meditate…

    There were also a couple of interviews with the kids and they kept telling how much they had started to love meditation… This is an awesome resolution if you asked me.

    Quoting Dalai Lama, if every 8-year-old kid in the world starts meditating today, we will have eliminated all the violence from the world within one generation.

    • I’m not sure how you make someone meditate.  I’d be interested in knowing if this was guided meditation, and what exactly the students were directed to meditate about.  I agree that meditation is a wonderful option.  I just question who is leading the meditation.  Is the teacher taking time out from the lesson?  What are the other 25-30 students doing while the teachers is dealing with the meditating students.  

      Thanks so much for joining the conversation; I appreciate it!

  2. vey good content and laid out well however the real problem lies in the home. If the student is taught discipline at home and is corrected and is managed well than their is not a problem with that student in the classroom. However, if a student is not in a two parent home and is allowed to do as he/she pleased with no repercussions than the classroom is disrupted and chaos ensues.

    • Children we do not face repercussions for their actions are what has fed this situation. As a society, we need to get this one fixed, or things will continue to escalate.

  3. Very good content and laid out well.  However, the real problem lies in the home. If the student is taught discipline at home and is corrected and is managed well, then there is not a problem with that student in the classroom. However, if a student is not in a two parent home, and is allowed to do as he/she pleases with no repercussions, then the classroom is disrupted and chaos ensues.

    • Thanks for the kind words.  Parents who teach their children how to behave are seldom a problem in the classroom.  And, you are correct about ensuing chaos!  

      People who don’t have experience in a classroom cannot believe how bold a child with no self-control becomes in a room of 25-30 peers and only one adult.  Even the best behaved students love the drama that this type of behavior can present, as well as the break in the lesson.  

      Add to that the fact that most state legislatures have ensured that teachers have little to no authority to deal with these situations.  

      Thanks for joining the conversation; I appreciate it!

  4. Well this is the problem with schools in developed countries. As much as the idea behind this process is good the fact is that students would see it as an opportunity to get away with just about anything. Students need to be disciplined. That is the best way that I know of to make a child act the right way. 

    Of course discipline does not work all the time as some kids are just stubborn but it still has to be done. In undeveloped countries students are disciplined by flogging them and it is very effective. Maybe that’s what developed countries need to adopt.

    • It seems clear that humans need some sort of motivation to do the right thing.   I’m not sure I’d advocate going back to flogging, but you are absolutely correct.  Students will take advantage of everything!  Even the behaviors of the well-behaved students deteriorate if they witness students acting up, and receiving no consequences for their actions.  

      One of the problems is that the folks who have to deal with these behaviors have no say in how it gets handled.  People with no classroom experience, or no recent classroom experience are making the rules.  

      Thanks for joining the conversation; I appreciate it!

  5. So I am not seeing anything on the articles I have read as to how teachers fit into this. It’s very confusing to say the least. I am a teacher. If a student is being disruptive he or she should be removed. There should be a consequence and then a restorative practice. The teacher needs to be involved. I am finding in my school it seems as though we are left out of the mix. Students act out go the administration. The administration talks to them and there is no further action. I would think that some how the student should be required to sit with the teacher and talk to them. I had a student today who refused to work and ignored me. I asked him again to stop and he yelled, “What the F**K!” He was removed and returned with no explanation from administration. I do not find justice in the system that continues to ignore the teachers. I would gladly sit with the students and talk about how to make things better but this is not helpful. It just makes me sad because I would never allow my own children to act like that and no have to in the very least apologize.

    • From the bottom of my heart, I am so sorry to hear that you’re having to deal with this sort of disruption. I spent years living with the same sorts of situations you describe. I don’t believe anyone can understand it if they haven’t lived it. It takes away all of your power and authority, not to mention joy. And, you’re right; no one who could do something about this awful policy thinks there’s anything wrong. It’s the politically correct “flavor of the day.” It sends a terrible message to all students in the room, and to teachers as well. In part, it’s why I retired sooner than I would have preferred and started my own business. Please know that this is not you, it’s the system. It’s a crazy upside-down world that you’re trying to work within. From my experience, I know there are other children in your classroom that love and respect you, and are better people because you are there for them. However, do what you need to do to take care of yourself first. If you don’t, there will be nothing left for anyone else. I wish you all the best!


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