Using Restorative Justice to Transform School Culture
When restorative justice is implemented on a schoolwide level, it has the potential to transform relationships between teachers and students.
In response to the individual and collective trauma that our students, teachers, and staff faced throughout the pandemic, I worked with my school to create a restorative justice program during the 2021–22 school year. Although conflicts sometimes manifest on the individual level, it was important that I wasn’t simply bringing restorative practices into my individual classroom. Instead, to truly impact students’ experiences in school, I knew we had to start working toward schoolwide restorative justice implementation. Here are some of my key takeaways from my experience as a middle school restorative justice coordinator.
Restorative Justice Is Not a Behavior Management Technique
Because schools are reliant on compliance and rule following, restorative justice is often framed as a behavior and classroom management technique, which can lead to burnout and frustration among teachers. I remember conversations with teachers who felt like restorative practices just didn’t work. One teacher said, “I asked her the restorative questions, and the next day she continued disrupting class.” This expectation of immediate behavior changes comes from a misunderstanding of the complexity of human relationships and behavior.
If we see restorative practices as strategies to help us build real relationships and address harm, we will have the tools necessary to address conflicts that will inevitably occur. In turn, we’re able to humanize ourselves and our students by shifting from transactional relationships (i.e., I’ll use restorative practices if you change your behavior) to authentic relationships (i.e., I’ll use restorative practices as a way to strengthen our connection).
Restorative circles: A few months into the school year, a colleague shared concerns that one of her students, Marcus, was being bullied by his classmate Xavier (not their real names). I knew these students from class, so they felt comfortable talking with me. I started by talking to each student individually, using restorative questions to guide our conversations. After I talked with both of them, they agreed to a restorative circle.
Restorative circles can be used along a spectrum from proactive relationship building to responses to more serious instances of harm. The circle should be facilitated by someone who was not involved in the conflict, so that they can remain more neutral. This can be a teacher, a staff member, or, in some cases, a student who is trained in peer-to-peer circles.
In this case, the people directly impacted by the conflict participate in the circle. With a trembling voice, Marcus shared the hurtful names that Xavier was calling him and how this was impacting him. When it came time to ask Xavier questions, he immediately took responsibility for his actions; he explained the role that peer pressure played, but he offered a sincere apology and promised to stop bullying. Weeks later, after multiple check-ins with each student, I learned that Xavier had kept his promise to stop bullying Marcus.
On a larger scale, restorative circles can be used as proactive relationship-building strategies. Teachers might hold a circle in their class at the beginning and end of each week and use a reflection question with a prompt like “What’s one word to describe how you feel today?” or “Who’s the most important person in your life and why?” Circles give each student an opportunity to talk and offer a way to build a sense of community. The hope here is that investing in relationships creates environments where harm and conflict are less likely to occur in the first place, and easier to resolve when they do occur.
Schools can reflect on these questions as a community:
- How might our teaching and facilitation change when we replace classroom management with community building?
- What does our current model of punitive discipline teach students about how to solve their own conflicts?
Restorative Justice Requires Challenging Power Dynamics Between Students and Teachers
This lesson was affirmed when a teacher asked me to facilitate a circle between herself and one of her students, who was causing regular disruptions. In our circle, this student felt she was being treated unfairly by the teacher. She shared specific instances where she was chastised in front of the class for disrupting, when she was really just asking a classmate for help.
The teacher in this situation was able to listen, apologize, and work with her student to create a plan moving forward that worked for both of them.
After the restorative circle, both the teacher’s and the student’s perceptions seemed to shift. The teacher recognized that her reaction was only leading to more conflict. The student seemed to understand that the teacher was only acting out of frustration and actually developed some empathy for the teacher’s situation, recognizing that trying to keep all students engaged all the time is a really hard task.
If this student were simply punished for misbehavior, the teacher’s role in this conflict would have been ignored, and the issue would have persisted. When we solely blame and punish kids for conflicts that teachers also contributed to, we teach students that it’s OK for adults, but not students, to make mistakes. Although teachers are not responsible for their students’ actions, we are responsible for how we respond to conflicts with students and for creating the conditions for relationships, complicated as they are, to grow in our classrooms. Schools can reflect on these questions as a community:
- How can we create space for students to feel safe to address conflicts with adults in school?
- How can teachers model taking accountability for causing harm?
Restorative Justice Requires a Root-Cause Analysis
If we aren’t critically examining underlying causes of harm and conflict in schools, then the same patterns of conflict and harm will repeat.
At a micro level, this means I often work with students to identify root causes of repeated conflicts. Sometimes there was an underlying conflict with a teacher, sometimes there were issues with classmates that led to conflicts in class, and other times there were conflicts in their personal lives leading to issues in class.
At a macro level, this means we need to examine how systems of oppression manifest in schools. Is your school’s dress code policy disproportionately punishing girls and trans students? Is your school’s attendance policy disproportionately penalizing students with disabilities? These are the types of questions that help us to understand how systems of oppression show up in our schools. Transformative justice, which underpins restorative justice, provides a necessary framework for understanding how systems of oppression underpin conflict and harm and how we can transform conditions that lead to harm.
This attention to root causes helps ensure that students aren’t being blamed for conflicts that are bigger than their individual actions.
Schools can reflect on these questions as a community:
- What are the conditions (practices, rules, beliefs, etc.) that might lead to harm or conflict in your classroom and your school?
- What power do you have to transform those conditions? What might that look like?
The story of Xavier and Marcus illustrates both the possibilities of healing and reconciliation with restorative justice and the power of real-life consequences. Being confronted by the person you harmed, understanding the impact your actions had, and taking steps to reconcile is far more effective than traditional consequences like detention, where students can hide from the harm they caused. Even in situations where removing a student from the classroom is necessary for safety, convening a restorative circle when the student reenters the classroom still offers the opportunity for reconciliation.
Restorative justice is messy, complicated work, but our students and our teachers and staff deserve the dignity, the connection, and the healing that it offers.