“I don’t understand. I got in trouble, but I’m going on the camping trip,” a perplexed 10th grader said as teachers handed out car assignments for the weekend camping trip. “When I got caught, they sent me to Karla. She had a check-in with me then called my mom and told her she was requiring me to come on the trip this weekend. Now, here I am.”
The prior day, this student was caught with a cannabis vape pen in the boys’ bathroom. He didn’t get suspended for multiple days or receive a week of after-school detention. He wasn’t punished in the traditional way in which most schools respond to common student transgressions.
Restorative Discipline Supports Accountability
The student was signed up to attend one of my school’s monthly weekend camping trips, a core component of what ARISE High School, in Oakland, California, calls its “restorative justice ecosystem.” Our head of school, Karla Gandiaga, calculated this as the right response because the student had been on camping trips before and genuinely valued the experiences. She also knew he’d be required to engage with the adult mentors there. Before the camping trip, Karla met with me to explain the student’s situation and ensure that I’d engage him over the weekend about the consequences of his choices. “Be sure to have a hard conversation with him,” she appealed.
Many school leaders would question this action and criticize the lack of punishment in response to the student’s transgression. However, under our restorative justice ecosystem framework, the consequence wasn’t lenient and didn’t reflect the student “getting away” with something. Rather, being required to attend the camping trip reveals a fundamental tenet of restorative discipline. Students will make mistakes, consequences must address their behaviors, and the goal of discipline is to help students to understand their responsibility to themselves and their communities in order to transform their behavior.
An Ecosystem of Care and Support
After working for over 15 years to understand and implement models of restorative justice (RJ) in various school settings, I’ve found that four key pillars contribute to an effective restorative program: beliefs, practices, policies, and structures. They create an ecosystem that makes transgressions less likely while establishing a set of responses that call students into community through care and support rather than pushing them out through punishment.
Here’s a look at what constitutes ARISE’s pillars:
- Having a strong sense of community and belonging is critical to a restorative justice ecosystem.
- Authority comes through strong relationships with students, not through positional power.
- Students deserve the right to be in class learning and shouldn’t be removed or suspended easily.
- Staff should use adverse situations with students as an opportunity to build stronger relationships with them.
- Harm to individuals is harmful to our community.
- The response to a transgression should be connected to the actual transgression and is an opportunity for growth and transformation.
These core beliefs must be modeled, cultivated, and reinforced through hiring priorities, professional development, and space for critical self-reflection so that they transform a school’s culture. For example, as part of the ARISE hiring process, we’ve crafted interview questions that elucidate a candidate’s alignment with these beliefs. Additionally, we disengage from the dominance of positional power by always creating space for student voice when challenging situations occur inside and outside the classroom. We also focus on a collective understanding of harm by engaging in a process of considering all potential stakeholders when transgressions occur.
- Restorative classroom management with warm demander teacher stance
- Culturally relevant pedagogy
- Friday Advisory Community Building Circles
- Restorative check-in conversations
- Text messaging to RJ team for immediate response to classroom issues
- Restorative circles in response to most transgressions
- Minimize suspension time even when suspension is necessary
In a restorative justice ecosystem, beliefs are reinforced by practices embedded within the school community. In my school, we implement what we call “restorative classroom management.” Teachers embody the warm demander framework of high-expectation/high-support teaching reinforced through professional development, peer observation, and instructional coaching.
- Adhere to the ARISE Codes of Respect (expectations that constitute “school rules”).
- Violations require a restorative conversation, regardless of outcome.
- Students are/should be required to fill out a behavior reflection after being redirected multiple times.
Policies are necessary to ensure that effective practices are being upheld throughout a school. Our discipline policies focus on the values we expect students and staff to embody. For example, we have a policy that students turn in their cell phones as they walk into class each period. Our Code of Respect states, “When it comes to our learning, every minute counts. Phones and electronics serve as unnecessary distractions to our learning and show disrespect to our teachers who have worked hard to prepare engaging and illuminating lessons.” Restorative discipline requires policies that hold us accountable to our values, especially when we’re living in the gray areas and when situations are most challenging.
- An RJ team always available to provide classroom support
- Behavior agreements (contracts)
- Advisory with two advisers for each group
- Two or more mental health counselors on-site
- Break space in all classrooms
- Focused support for students with individualized education programs (about 10 students per learning specialist)
- Weekly RJ meetings to improve practices
- Incident tracker so that staff members are aware of outcomes and communication regarding student incidents
Finally, a restorative justice ecosystem is held up by structures that successfully maintain it. Many of those at my school, such as a break space in every classroom or a co-adviser model featuring two teachers as academic and social and emotional support in every advisory, are designed to provide care so that students don’t need to act out. When transgressions inevitably occur, established restorative structures define our responses—grounded in care and support, not punishment.
A Restorative Justice Approach Helps Students Thrive
Under a traditional, punitive model, a student in this scenario would receive detention or be suspended for several days, missing valuable learning time. Like most punitive consequences, these measures don’t engage students around the “why” of their choices or investigate the underlying causes of their behaviors. Students are marginalized and asked to “learn from their mistakes” without any tools or support.
In contrast, the student’s experience on the camping trip not only required him to spend an hour (while washing dishes) talking to me about his choice to vape at school, share his struggles with substance use, and open up about using marijuana as coping, but also led him to have a longer conversation with a second teacher. In it, she shared her own challenges with marijuana in her youth and how she overcame relying on it as a coping mechanism. Since the student returned from the camping trip, his attitude has shifted significantly, and he hasn’t had any other behavioral issues at school.
While this is a distinct example, my hope is that it elucidates the benefits and possibilities of shifting from a punitive approach to a restorative one through building an ecosystem intended for every student to thrive in school.