Making Restorative Justice Work
In a recent book, a high school principal explains how he implemented a time- and cost-effective process to improve equity in discipline.
The Restorative Justice Tribunal (the Tribunal) is a forum and process designed to divert students away from out-of-school consequences and restore their standing in a school community. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the Tribunal was born from an urgent need. We needed to stop suspending African American students five times more frequently than their peers, even though Black students weren’t a third of the student population of my school. The lopsided assignment of suspensions and expulsions needed to stop.
A tribunal is defined as a person or institution with authority to adjudicate, pass judgment, or determine claims or disputes. A Restorative Justice Tribunal is a group vested by a school leader with the authority to validate agreements between parties and repair harms that individuals cause in a school community. The Tribunal is comprised of an offending student, a number of Restorative Justice Facilitators, and Restorative Justice Peer Mentors. During a Tribunal meeting, offenders get to tell their story and reflect on their actions.
The Restorative Justice Tribunal structure helps students understand how their behavior harmed the community. The Tribunal also helps offenders understand the importance of repairing any harm their actions cause to others.
For the Restorative Justice Tribunal to succeed, several elements were critical. When I launched restorative justice in my school, the two most crucial factors, ironically, had little to do with the urgent need to reduce suspensions and expulsion. Those factors were time and cost.
Critical Factors for Success
In addition to being able to reduce suspensions and expulsion rates, Restorative Justice Tribunals had to be cost-effective and able to sustain any unexpected budget crisis. I had to ensure the Restorative Justice Tribunal wouldn’t die if a budget crisis strained our ability to hire Restorative Justice Facilitators.
The Tribunals also had to be time-efficient. Because our school historically struggled to get students to pass state-mandated proficiency exams that occurred every spring, it would be at the expense of students’ education and my own professional peril for Tribunals to keep students out of classes for extended periods of time.
To maximize efficiency, I wanted Tribunals to last no more than 15 minutes from the time an offender walked into the Tribunal space until the Tribunal ended with a restorative justice agreement. While there was a substantial need to keep order in our school, repair harms, and help students learn from their behavioral mistakes, there was a competing urgent need for students to make adequate progress toward mastering state standards. The only way that was going to happen was to keep kids in class and learning as much as possible.
Along with being time- and cost-efficient, the Restorative Justice Tribunal had to work. Restorative Justice Tribunals had to demonstrate quantifiable success at diverting students away from out-of-school consequences as there were many critics of restorative practices. There were vocal critics of restorative practices within my school, my school district, and my city. There were more than enough haters with whom restorative practices had to contend. Even the local newspaper joined in on the restorative justice hateration. The local newspaper ran an above-the-fold article with my students’ pictures above a headline suggesting restorative practices did not work. There were “haters” everywhere.
Faced with this opposition, the Restorative Justice Tribunal had to work. We had to be successful at teaching students how to use tools to navigate the social and in-class situations that sometimes triggered poor behavior choices.
Staff the Tribunal for Positive Outcomes
The primary resource required for a Restorative Justice Tribunal is people. A Restorative Justice Tribunal requires two professionally trained adults, plus three or four trained Student Peer Advocates. While any staff member with an abundance of emotional intelligence can facilitate a Tribunal, I believe a licensed, effective school-based counselor, social worker, or psychologist should facilitate. Having a school counselor, social worker, or psychologist facilitate also reduces liability schools may face when attending to students’ mental health related needs.
On most campuses, school counselors are best positioned to facilitate Tribunals because of the unique relationship school counselors have with students. Counselors are trained to help students talk through difficult situations and circumstances. Moreover, the professional standards for school counselors require counselors to facilitate the interventions that happen in the Restorative Justice Tribunal model.
The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) Standards state that school counselors are expected to provide short-term counseling to individuals and small groups, refer to school and community resources on behalf of students, and implement instruction aligned to the ASCA Mindsets and Behaviors for Student Success in a group and individual settings. The Restorative Justice Tribunal structure allows school counselors to do these things.
While it is ideal for at least one school counselor to be on a school’s Restorative Justice Tribunal team, staffing may look different across schools because school funding varies. If a counselor equipped to facilitate Tribunals is not available, the expertise of social workers and school psychologists serve as excellent choices to be Tribunal Facilitators. Social workers and school psychologists, like school counselors, are trained to support students through discussions. I launched the Restorative Justice Tribunal with a school counselor and a social worker. They anchored the program and provided a balance of skills and approaches.
It is an understatement to say the caseload demands of school social workers, school counselors, and school psychologists are overwhelming. The mental health needs of students are increasing. That demand for mental health services greatly affects the work of these professionals. Schools planning to include school counselors, social workers, or school psychologists in restorative justice solutions should be prepared to adjust these professionals’ workloads to accommodate the added responsibility of hearing Tribunal cases. This is especially true in the initial stages of running Tribunals or any other restorative justice intervention.
In my own experience, I reduced the caseload of one school counselor to ensure she had time to attend to her counseling duties and accommodate the responsibilities of the Restorative Justice Tribunal. There will always be competing interests and competing needs in schools that must be reconciled. By analyzing resources available, a school leader will have to identify suitable professionals to participate in restorative justice programming.
Whoever is selected must have an abundance of emotional intelligence, a gift for connecting with people, and the ability to train students to be vital Tribunal members.
The Secret Sauce: Restorative Justice Peer Advocates
After identifying the adults to participate on the Restorative Justice Tribunal, there will be a need to identify students to serve on the Tribunal as Restorative Justice Peer Advocates. These Peer Advocates serve a different purpose than students who participate in a Trial by Peers or Youth Court program. In Trial by Peers, peer members hear a case, pass judgment on an offender, and sentence them to a consequence.
What Restorative Justice Peer Advocates do is different. Restorative Justice Tribunal Peer Advocates serve as support persons for offenders during (and often after) Tribunal proceedings. Peer Advocates help participants relax and feel comfortable during the Tribunal proceeding, providing a valuable system of support in an unfamiliar setting.
Restorative Justice Peer Advocates also provide Restorative Justice Tribunal Facilitators with student perspectives on how offenders should repair the harms that arise in Tribunal proceedings. Peer Advocates also validate solutions to repair harms that offenders propose during Tribunals. Peer Advocates’ presence ensures that students’ voices are heard and repatriations are fair and relevant.
It is essential to select the right students to be Restorative Justice Tribunal Peer Advocates, especially when starting the program. When selecting students to be Peer Advocates for the launch of a Tribunal program, first decide when the Restorative Justice Tribunal will convene and identify students for whom the Tribunal fits into their instructional day.
This may be different in elementary schools where master schedulers may have flexibility over when students take special classes and attend scheduled activities. Special classes, activities, and sometimes recess periods may be able to be scheduled to coincide with times a Restorative Justice Tribunal convenes.
In secondary schools, master schedulers can choose to select Peer Advocates from elective classes, create a restorative justice elective class, identify students who have open periods in their schedule, or draw from students who have ‘Office Practice’ or similar classes in their schedules. The Peer Advocate selection process will look different at each school as well as look different at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.
Selecting the right students to train as Peer Advocates will help your Restorative Justice Tribunal succeed. When we selected our first cohort of Restorative Justice Tribunal Peer Advocates, we chose students without extreme behavior offenses on their student records and those with good attendance records. We also selected students whom we believed would pay proper attention to confidentiality.
From Restorative Justice Tribunal by Zachary Scott Robbins, ©2021 Routledge/Taylor & Francis. Used with permission. www.routledge.com