By Nora Nunn
In schools across the country, education administrators are increasingly embracing restorative justice—a positive school discipline practice that focuses on repairing harm and developing students’ social-emotional health, rather than punishing perpetrators.
The data are convincing. Schools implementing restorative justice models in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago have increased school attendance and reduced suspensions, thereby helping to keep kids in schools and out of the juvenile justice system.
Take Damon Smith, who had been expelled 15 times before becoming an A student at Ralph J. Bunche High School in Oakland, California. Restorative justice taught him to channel his feelings through words. “I didn’t know how to express emotions with my mouth. I knew how to hit people,” he says. “I feel I can go to someone now.”
How Restorative Justice Works
As a practice that originates from American Indian and other Native cultures around the world, restorative justice emphasizes restoring a sense of well-being not only to those who were harmed, but also to the individual who committed the harm. The person who caused harm has an opportunity to make peace with both the victim and the encompassing community.
While various restorative practice models exist, many schools are adopting—and adapting—the indigenous practice of “talking circles.” If disharmony arises within the school environment—racism, a student’s suicide, an altercation, or discipline challenges, for example—students and educators may convene and communicate in a structured, open space.
In a talking circle, students can communicate and express feelings without interruption about a variety of issues they face, such as violence, substance abuse, racism, poverty, and domestic abuse. To facilitate communication, participants often use an object, such as a talking stick or talking feather that is passed from speaker to speaker, determining who has the right to speak. The practice of speaking without interruption encourages mutual respect and fosters students’ social and emotional development.
In school hallways, staff use a restorative approach too. A guidance counselor at one Pennsylvania high school reflected that he no longer automatically pulls a rambunctious student into the discipline office: “I’ll pull him over, one-on-one, and try to understand where he’s coming from.”
The talking circle model is flourishing at Oakland’s Bunche High School. Prior to this, 90 percent of the 250 students had had run-ins with the juvenile system or had lived in foster homes. An after-school coordinator at Bunche, who faced challenges similar to his students’ while growing up in a segregated housing project in New Orleans, explains in a New York Times article, “A lot of these young people don’t have adults to cry to, so whatever emotion they feel, they go do.” Within just one year of implementing the restorative justice program, Bunche High School reduced its overall suspension rate by a third.
In Newtown Middle School in Newtown, Pennsylvania, a relatively affluent community, the assistant principal became interested in restorative practices for “frequent flyers”—students who were repeatedly sent to his office for behavioral issues. After receiving training and beginning to use restorative practices, the assistant principal was compelled to spread its use throughout the school. He explains in an International Institute for Restorative Practices Report, “Restorative practices have changed the feeling and culture here. Now it’s like a family setting. Everyone asks for help and helps others.” After a year of using restorative justice practices, suspensions and disciplinary infractions were reduced by 80 percent.
Positive Vs. Punitive School Discipline
While restorative justice is gradually gaining traction, the Conflict Resolution Education Network estimates that only 10 percent of U.S. public schools offer comparatively similar conflict resolution education programs.
The majority of U.S. public schools continue to rely on “zero tolerance” policies, which enforce mandatory discipline such as automatic suspension, expulsion, or even arrest. These policies can be problematic in that they have been found to inhibit school engagement and attendance, and leave little room for common sense or discretion.
Studies suggest that punitive discipline practices can even increase drop-out rates—particularly among students of color. In contrast, restorative justice has been found to lead students to higher educational attainment, the development of sustainable and positive relationships, and reduced violence.
However, some experts warn that restorative justice may not work in all cases. Barbara McClung, district coordinator for behavioral health services at Bunche High School, notes that restorative justice is not an appropriate treatment for mental illness or ideal for situations with major power imbalances. “Not every student will acknowledge they caused harm,” she says. Additionally, the practice requires a solid commitment from schools in terms of time, training, and facilitation.
Still, the good news is that positive school discipline policies, programs, and practices—including restorative justice—are improving the culture in more and more schools across the country. Positive school discipline helps students stay engaged in school so they can thrive and succeed.
For more information about and examples of positive school discipline practices, see Supportive School Discipline: Snapshots from the SS/HS Initiative. To find resources on restorative justice in schools, view the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention brief Introduction to Restorative Justice.
Does your school practice restorative justice? If so, how would you describe the results? Do you know of other promising alternatives to the “zero tolerance” approach? Please leave your comments below.*
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