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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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8 Tips for Schools Interested in Restorative Justice

Fania E. Davis

Co-Founder and Executive Director, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth
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Restorative justice is an effective alternative to punitive responses to wrongdoing. Inspired by indigenous traditions, it brings together persons harmed with persons responsible for harm in a safe and respectful space, promoting dialogue, accountability, and a stronger sense of community. Restorative justice is a philosophical framework that can be applied in a variety of contexts -- the justice system, schools, families, communities, and others.

In schools, we see that overreliance on punitive strategies like suspension or expulsion isn't working. The UCLA Civil Rights Project (PDF, 30.3MB) has found that schools with high suspension rates are less safe, less equitable, and have lower academic outcomes.

In a January 2014 school guidance package, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan stated, "The need to rethink and redesign school discipline practices is long overdue."

Zero-tolerance policies may seem like the answer to bad behavior in the heat of the moment. But they're not. This short-term fix is based on fear. It focuses only on the rule that was broken and the punishment deserved. Instead of trying to make things right, it responds to the original harm with an additional harm. It doesn't get at root causes, doesn't try to repair the damage to relationships, and fails to prevent recurrence. The apparent expediency of a punitive approach is attractive to harried teachers and school administrators. In fact, it makes our schools neither safer nor smarter, and has a disproportionately negative impact on students of color.

School-based restorative justice offers a more sustainable, equitable, and respectful alternative to dealing with misbehavior, from minor infractions to violence. It can also be used as a proactive strategy to create a culture of connectivity and care where all members of the school community can thrive.

For almost a decade, I've worked with administrators, teachers, parents, and students whose schools had high suspension rates and unhealthy environments. Restorative practices help make schools safer and more caring places, creating pathways to opportunity and success instead of pipelines to incarceration and violence. Here are eight tips if your school seeks to launch this practice.

1. Assess Need

Are suspensions, expulsions, and arrests at your school higher than they should be? Is there disparity in your school's discipline practices based on race or disability? Does your school have a safe, fair, and positive learning environment?

2. Engage the School Community

Are staff, parents, students, or community members unhappy with discipline practices and outcomes? Are they concerned about the negative impact of punitive discipline?  For example, suspending students just once triples the likelihood they will end up in in the juvenile justice system, and doubles the chance they will drop out. High school dropouts are 75 percent of state prison inmates (PDF, 33KB).

A collaborative planning process engaging as many of the members of the school community as possible builds a strong foundation. Seek broad support and generate interest and commitment through education and trust building. If you already have school climate interventions in place, how will restorative justice work with them? Describe restorative justice as a proactive means of promoting a positive, healthy, and orderly school environment, where everyone involved learns and practices self-discipline, empathy, and accountability. RJ is not merely a conflict resolution process that comes into play after harm has occurred -- it is a positive school climate strategy.

Expose school staff to the scientific evidence (PDF, 279KB). Brain studies show that punitive responses activate a fight/freeze/flight brain response, shutting down children's ability to learn. Restorative responses create a brain state of relaxed alertness that optimizes the ability to think creatively and learn.

3. Hire a Restorative Justice Coordinator

A full-time restorative justice coordinator working for the school is ideal. Alternatively, a trained and motivated vice principal, dean, or counselor can manage training and school-wide implementation of restorative practices.

4. Begin Training

Plan a series of trainings, starting with an introductory session early in the school year for as many staff as possible -- security officers, teachers, counselors, administrators, support staff, after-school program staff, etc. Ideally, the introductory training prepares the school to implement proactive, community-building processes school-wide. At the next level, a smaller group is trained to facilitate restorative discipline processes to address rule infractions and to be used as an alternative to suspension. Though facilitation by an insider is preferable, if this is not available, training can be facilitated by experienced consultants or community-based organizations. Also, it's important to create a school-wide professional learning community that allows RJ practitioners at the site to continually reflect throughout the school year on what is working, what are areas of growth, and what tweaking is needed.

5. School-Wide Implementation

Following a two-day introductory training before the school year begins, put what you've learned into practice with coaching from the RJ coordinator or other designated person. Practice restorative conversation techniques in the hallways, cafeteria, playground, and classrooms. Do classroom circles to generate shared values, or short check-in and check-out circles at the beginning and end of class. Circles might also be held school-wide during advisory periods on a recurring basis. As the need arises, there may be healing, grief, or celebration circles. An excellent guide for creatively facilitating these kinds of community-building circles is Heart of Hope by Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis. An elective restorative justice class may be offered to students, or a restorative justice youth leadership group established.

6. Institute Restorative Discipline

The RJ coordinator or designated administrator begins to use restorative alternatives for disciplinary infractions. Students returning from an absence due to incarceration, suspension, or expulsion will participate in reentry circles. Many of these practices will involve parents. Follow-up is critical. Revise the school discipline manual and create referral forms to support restorative discipline practices. Develop a database to document restorative interventions and outcomes.

7. Involve Students in Peer Restorative Practices

Train students to promote and facilitate circles. Empower them to create a safe and respectful space to talk through instead of fighting through differences. Develop adult capacity to share power with youth and recognize the opportunities where youth can work in authentic partnership with adult allies to improve the effectiveness of the school's restorative justice initiative. Elevate youth voice by training students in Theater of the Oppressed, Playback, and other powerful performing arts modalities.

8. Be Sure to Evaluate

To make sure you're on track, review and analyze data quarterly. Compare past and present data on physical altercations, suspension rates and incidents, racial disparities in school discipline, standardized test scores, and truancy. Survey teachers, students, and administrators regarding how they feel about their school:

  • Do they feel a greater sense of safety?
  • An increased sense of belonging?
  • Are relationships better among students and between students and adults?
  • What about between the school, parents, and community?

Is your school willing to shift from zero-tolerance to restorative justice? Whether you are just getting started or already using school-wide restorative justice practices, do you have additional tips? How is it working? What changes have you seen? Please share your experiences and aspirations in the comments below.

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Fania E. Davis

Co-Founder and Executive Director, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth

Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Lynx's picture

These are all great tips. In addition to these tips-- I would suggest whoever is attempting to implement RJ also consider getting some training in restorative leadership-- and using that training to manage the challenge of culture change in a way that is respectfully inclusive of existing sentiments-- including some resistance (you should expect some resistance, and that is a great opportunity to model respectful inclusion and listening to everybody's needs).

There is some evidence that "top-down" directives can struggle to be implemented well, or be co-opted by existing paradigms of social control and punishment-- so this especially important if you are challenging a very resistance cultural environment.

Also, I would suggest making sure you think of RJ as more than a Process, or even a set of Processes, and consider investing in training the Skills necessary to support the processes, and learning the philosophy and ethos that is the reason for those skills. This may require a type of learning that is sustained and ongoing, rather than a one day or even two-day intensive training-- especially if that training is conducted without a heavy emphasis on active learning strategies. Instead, consider ongoing professional development in smaller doses, or professional learning groups that could meet every few weeks or months.

Good luck to everyone seeking to improve their school environment!

Eileen Prior's picture
Eileen Prior
Exec Director at Scottish Parent Teacher Council

Thanks for this great article.

As a parent and someone who has looking into restorative practice I fully support it - but not every parent does. And so for restorative practice to really embed in a school, parents have to be part of the process and brought along. Otherwise - as I know to my bitter cost - they can stop any such approach stone dead.

Remember that parents are responsible for their kids and their permission - indeed active support - is needed if it is to work effectively.

Brian's picture

I am for restorative justice, but I do not agree that one suspension increases the likelihood of a student becoming incarcerated. Some behaviors deserve suspension. I appreciate the writers comments regarding the input from community stakeholders, especially the parents would be beneficial in developing a school environment that is peaceful and safe.

Fania E. Davis's picture
Fania E. Davis
Co-Founder and Executive Director, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth

William and Brian, you might wish to take a look at the report "Out of School & Off Track: The Overuse of Suspensions in American Middle and High Schools." This landmark study is the source of the data I referenced on the connection between suspension and juvenile justice involvement. You may access it here: http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/resources/projects/center-for-civil-r...

The goal isn't simply to stop suspending. As you suggest, a mechanical approach would fly in the face of complex realities. The goals of whole school restorative justice are to find more equitable and effective ways of holding students accountable for their conduct, while getting at root causes, increasing instructional hours, and preventing recurrence. In Oakland we find that implementing restorative justice is promoting social-emotional learning and a culture of accountability, while teaching students to talk through instead of fight through their differences. We've been able to not only lower suspensions, but also reduce racial disparities and increase academic outcomes while creating safer schools.

Fania E. Davis's picture
Fania E. Davis
Co-Founder and Executive Director, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth

Lynx, your comment about modeling inclusivity in the RJ implementation process (and beyond) strongly resonates with me. We are thoroughly socialized in an ethic of separation, domination, and extreme individualism. Yet RJ asks us to shift to one of collaboration, partnership, and interrelatedness. Modeling the change we wish to see is so much a part of the work. It invites a high level of mindfulness, self-awareness, and commitment to one's own internal transformation - enormously challenging!

Eileen, what you say about parent involvement also strikes a chord. Our schools here in Oakland have involved parents in varying ways, including inviting their participation in trainings, Circles, holding a "restorative justice" orientation with parents of newly admitted students, etc. But your comment about including them on the ground floor of the implementation process is key, and needs to be added to the tips.

Fania E. Davis's picture
Fania E. Davis
Co-Founder and Executive Director, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth

Dixie Diarist, your post is so skillfully written. Achingly beautiful. I assume what you've written is fact, not fiction. Non fiction or fiction, thank goodness for teachers like the one you write about with a Cozy Room of Learning and compassion for students. Even in the midst of an uncaring if not hostile and bullying environment, one teacher, just one, can make a difference. And one teacher made a huge difference for Homer that day. He felt safe at a most vulnerable time. He'll never forget it. He'll probably be making his way down to the Cozy Room - if he hasn't already.

David Dean's picture
David Dean
Intern at Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY)

Hi Eileen and Lynx,

I really liked your comments about the need to create cultural change within a school community as a prerequisite to the successful institution of restorative justice policies. One strategy that I have found useful for doing this is to simply initiate discussions, in formal or informal settings, and to disseminate research and information among community members about to the need to view our youth that struggle as people in need of healing rather than punitive discipline.

Last year I was part of a group of staff members that successfully changed disciplinary policy to a restorative approach at The Woolman Semester School in northern California. I remember in the fall of last year I began speaking about students' need for healing in faculty meetings and before I knew it, I started hearing many others who worked there begin to use the same terminology on a regular basis.

One text that was also useful is Bruce Perry's work, "The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing." It puts plainly how harsh punishment is completely ineffective when dealing with maladaptive or harmful behaviors that often come from young people who have experienced trauma (far more than many would like to admit).

Thank you both for your comments!

Bruce Smith's picture

I'd love your perspective on the Judicial Committee (JC) process at Sudbury schools like Alpine Valley (http://alpinevalleyschool.com). We don't just involve students: they play a central role in this participatory, restorative system. Taking turns serving on JC, figuring out together what happened and what to do about it, conflict resolution becomes more about community members working out norms and giving people a chance to make amends when those norms are violated.

Instead of zero tolerance, Sudbury students enjoy plenty of opportunities to learn to be responsible in what I sometimes describe as relationship-based education. Suspension's not unheard of, but rather than being punitive, the emphasis is on getting to the bottom of things and supporting the student in becoming more responsible.

For a good overview of the JC process, I highly recommend a video produced by Sudbury Valley School: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYWWFfN4XA0.

Amber Bagby's picture

My masters is in Conflict Resolution and I am interested in being trained in RJ. As an administrator where should I look for training? What are the most credible sources/universities? As I eagerly see many districts across the US attempt to adopt this model/culture I fear the success rate will only be reflective when implemented by a well-trained facilitator.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

Amber, start here with the International Institute for Restorative Practices: http://www.iirp.edu/

It's true that you need some training, but it's also important to build a culture where teachers move from wanting to punish students to wanting to support them through challenges, and that can be built anywhere with some hard work and vulnerability!

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