Educators are increasingly aware of the failings of exclusionary discipline and zero tolerance policies. For too many students, a disciplinary measure becomes the first step on a path to prison, and the broader school community suffers in an environment that perpetuates unjust policies.
Restorative justice programs and policies offer a promising alternative. By shifting the focus from rule violation and punishment to accountability and harm reduction, practices and policies for implementing restorative justice within schools can produce more equitable and constructive environments for all students.
What Is Restorative Justice?
The roots of restorative justice practices are in the criminal justice system, but it has been adapted and adopted by educators and schools. Emphasizing accountability and making amends with victims, restorative justice seeks to repair harm caused by criminal acts. It typically involves meetings between victims, offenders, and community members, and encompasses several foundational ideas:
- Repairing the harm caused by crime is an integral part of justice.
- People affected by crime should be participants in efforts to repair the harm.
- A cooperative process that brings together all willing stakeholders can lead to fundamental changes in people, relationships, and communities.
Restorative Justice in Education
When applied to education, restorative justice provides an alternative to exclusionary discipline (suspensions and expulsions) and harsh zero tolerance policies. Restorative justice in schools provides a means for students to resolve conflicts on their own, typically in small, peer-mediated groups.
When conflicts arise, small groups meet to bring together a student who has caused the harm with those who have been affected. (A trained facilitator may or may not be present.) Hearing from peers about the harm that they have experienced exposes the student who has caused the harm to the consequences of their actions, which builds empathy.
Instead of simply removing the student who has broken a rule, such exercises in restorative justice consider the impact on other students and teachers and provide an opportunity to discuss ways to make amends. For example, rather than suspending a student who has bullied a classmate, the group may decide a more meaningful disciplinary process includes apologizing for the action and completing a writing assignment that explores the harmful aspects of bullying.
Restorative justice practices in schools are not limited to conflict resolution. Community-building exercises that engage entire classrooms in discussions help to foster constructive environments where restorative justice can take place. Sometimes called peace circles or talking circles, such peer-mediated groups give students an opportunity to talk about problems, raise concerns, and build rapport and respect among peers.
Turning the Page on Zero Tolerance Policies
Restorative justice aims to address the problems created by exclusionary discipline and zero tolerance policies. Exclusionary discipline removes students from schools through expulsion or suspension. Exclusionary discipline is an integral component of zero tolerance policies––disciplinary rules used by some schools that involve giving students specific, consistent, and harsh punishments when a rule is broken. Like restorative justice practices, zero tolerance policies are rooted in criminal justice.
The underlying theory behind zero tolerance policies is that small rule violations (or crimes) necessarily lead to larger infractions. By acting swiftly and harshly when a violation is first committed, larger problems can be avoided. Zero tolerance policies do not consider the circumstances surrounding an incident or the disciplinary history or background of the person who committed the violation.
Advocates for restorative justice in education point to major problems with zero tolerance policies and exclusionary discipline in schools:
- They are largely ineffective. Suspensions and expulsions often result in poorer academic performance and lower school engagement.
- They disproportionately target students of color. Structural racism and the implicit bias of some teachers and administrators leads to students of color being overrepresented in exclusionary discipline measures.
- They can be overly harsh. Expulsions and suspensions are often for nonviolent actions.
Students who are suspended or expelled often feel ostracized, undervalued, and misunderstood. They are at greater risk for dropping out of school, and students who are not in school are at greater risk of coming into contact with the criminal justice system. The phenomenon of harsh school disciplinary policies resulting in students becoming criminals is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
Benefits of Restorative Justices
Restorative justice holds promise for educators seeking a more thoughtful and constructive approach to discipline. While exclusionary discipline and zero tolerance policies determine punitive actions that remove an offender from the community, restorative justice promotes engagement and measures designed to reduce the harm caused by the offender. Advocates of restorative justice believe this shift in intent can reduce suspensions and expulsions, address racial disparities in the application of exclusionary discipline, and dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. Other benefits associated with restorative justice policies affect the wider school community:
- Promoting social and emotional growth
- Supporting positive behaviors in schools
- Strengthening campus communities
- Reducing student conflicts
- Making all students feel safer
Strategies for Implementing Restorative Justice Programs in Schools
The following can be effective strategies for implementing restorative justice programs in schools:
- Assess and evaluate. Gather data on disciplinary incidents, suspension rates, and any racial disparities in school discipline. This provides an estimation of problems that need to be addressed and a baseline for measuring progress. Manage expectations; major change requires multiple years of implementation.
- Engage the entire school community. Restorative justice policies will likely have enthusiastic supporters and skeptics. Including teachers, students, and parents in the process and continually discussing how they feel increases the likelihood of success.
- Establish long-term commitments from stakeholders at the onset. Implementing restorative justice policies requires continual support and training resources.
Restorative justice programs have been shown to be effective; but implementing them can be a complex process, and the results are not always immediate. Educators should be mindful of potential pitfalls:
- Failing to make implementation a collaborative effort. Restorative justice requires a change in mindset that must be embraced by teachers, students, and administrators.
- Providing inadequate resources. A single class or training session will not give teachers the support they need to make transformational change in disciplinary policy.
- Neglecting to acknowledge institutional racism and bias in society and schools. Focusing too much on individuals and behavior management, or viewing the reduction of suspensions and expulsions as a goal rather than a result of more equitable policies, fails to address the root problem of many existing disciplinary policies.
Promoting More Equitable Policies
Educators committed to social justice and equity in education should consider Mills College’s online Master of Educational Leadership program. With a collaborative, inclusive, trauma-informed leadership approach, the program produces change-makers with a solid grounding in teaching and learning theories, as well as thoughtful curriculum and policy development. To learn more, visit Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership.