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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Restorative justice empowers students to resolve conflicts on their own, and it's growing in practice at schools around the country. Essentially, the idea is to bring students together in peer-mediated small groups to talk, ask questions and air their grievances. (This overview from Fix School Discipline is a wonderful primer.)

For the growing number of districts using restorative justice, the programs have helped strengthen campus communities, prevent bullying and reduce student conflicts. And the benefits are clear: Early adopting districts have seen drastic reductions in suspension and expulsion rates, and students say they are happier and feel safer.

In practice, these programs vary by district, but respect and responsibility seem to be common themes. Here's a look at restorative justice programs in a few schools:

Oakland Unified School District

Oakland Unified School District first implemented its restorative justice program at one school in 2007. Since then, it has expanded, and the district has seen promising reductions in suspensions, in addition to increased attendance.

The program is broken down into three tiers. In the first, entire classrooms come together in community-building circles to talk about problems and voice their concerns, which encourages peer-to-peer respect. For specific conflicts, though, smaller groups are used, which bring together the harmed student, the person causing the harm, and a group of their peers or adults. A third tier is reserved for student reintegration following suspension.

Ypislanti High School

The restorative justice program at Ypislanti High School engages students in peer mediation in a "conflict resolution center." These interventions are designed to help resolve conflicts before they turn into bigger issues. For conflicts that have already happened, say a fight, all students involved as well as their peers participate in a "restorative circle," which allows the student who has caused the harm to hear the views of peers.

Guides for Successful Implementation

Of course, successful restorative justice programs require some planning. For those interested in taking those first steps, these guides provide plenty of insight.

Other Resources and Articles

Comments (3)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

zep's picture
zep
Education Specialist

Sadly these noble efforts are caged in an adult controlled building. If these efforts are to be authentic they must be implemented within a democratic school. What makes a school democratic? Start with absolutely no coercion, this includes grad requirements, and then empower students and staff, 1 person 1 vote to make all school decisions. Lastly, this system cannot be undermined by an autocratic district office. Blend restorative justice into one of those schools and it takes on an entirely different context. This is similar to the functioning of most student councils around the nation; they are nice opportunities for kids to choose the theme of homecoming, but really no exercises in real democracy with meaning. Student Council sadly often becomes a nice add on to the college bound students' application.

Lynn Jones's picture

As a parent I have one experience of "restorative justice" - a policy used by teenage son's high school. I cannot support it for some students. Our son is "gifted visual spatial learner with learning difficulties". When faced with bullying or other stresses at school he "shuts down". We reported the bullying and were told of the restorative justice approach. I pointed out that it would be impossible for our son to talk to the bully in such an environment and would only increase his anxiety. The solution we preferred was for a "safe haven" where there is adult supervision. A place where our son could go during breaks where he felt safe and comfortable. We had limited success in this. There was a games room established but the school complained of not being able to staff it. He is now removed from the school system and we are now learning at home. My feeling is there was no culture of democracy at the school, there was no overall discussion with the school community about restorative justice and there was no second option in place when it didn't work. My reason for commenting is simply to point out that the process doesn't work for all students.

zep's picture
zep
Education Specialist

Lynn, I applaud your efforts to create an educational system which works best for your son; sadly your experience seems to echo my concern of having a student based justice system within a system wherein students have no real power. Best of luck with your endeavors, I would strongly recommend a book on unschooling, a "twist" on homeschooling, The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, by Grace Llewellyn.

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