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Education Trends

What the Heck Is Restorative Justice?

With the right training and support, restorative justice can prove more effective than traditional discipline measures in building a stronger school community.

I’m going to simplify the new school management term du jour (that’s actually been around for awhile): restorative justice. Google the term and you’ll see restorative justice is defined as “a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.” It may sound like a term used in a prison. (It is, actually.)

But let’s state it in the way it is being used in our schools. In sum, restorative justice helps a student to own what she/he did, make it right for those hurt or affected, and involve the community in helping both the victim and the offender. Restorative justice acknowledges that those who do wrong need healing as well.

The myth is that restorative justice replaces harsher consequences. The truth is that restorative justice represents the steps that lead up to more harsh consequences, should they be necessary. 

The Process of Restorative Justice

Sometimes in educational discipline we whip out the cannons of suspension first. But with the right training and support from all stakeholders, restorative justice can prove much more effective in building a stronger school community. And, let’s face it, the challenge of making amends is a task that, for many kids, is far harder than just staying home for three days. 

According to Howard Zehr, a recognized founding father of restorative justice, the concept is based on three pillars:

  1. Harms and needs
  2. Obligation (to put right)
  3. Engagement (of stakeholders)

In other words:

1. Empathy for all and by all. There must be awareness that while harm was done to a victim -- and possibly a larger community -- there may also have been past harm done to the accused as well, and that harm may be a factor in his or her behavior.

2. A mumbled “sorry” is not enough. There must be a process, a moderated one, which helps the accused somehow right the wrong that was committed.

3. Everyone is involved in the healing. There must include a dialogue with all parties -- victim, offender, and even community -- in order to genuinely move on and have an impact.

How About the Term Restorative Justice?

While I think the strategy of restorative justice is one that many schools should be using, I think the term isn’t great. I don’t have anything against the individual words per se. After all, the words restorative and justice sound lovely by themselves. When I hear the word restorative, I think about building back one’s strength after a sickness. I think about honoring one’s dignity and helping to rebuild what was taken away. When I think about justice, I think about fairness, equitable opportunities, and using the strength of a system to stand up for what is right. 

But somehow, when you put the two words together, they take on a different sound that does a disservice to the term’s intention. Why use such a loaded term? I think -- and I’m just musing here -- that it has to do with critics of “softer” discipline. I believe restorative justice is a term meant to instill toughness, while really meaning empathy and using more compassionate steps before utilizing more stringent ones.

But, the fact is, restorative justice is a vital component in any larger discipline plan. Schools must have strategies whereby they help students work out their differences and their arguments. Schools must play a part in helping students understand why they do things and how to think beyond their emotional impulses. 

Restorative Justice Supports Student Brain Development

And this isn’t just fluffy thinking here. We’re talking about brain development and acknowledging that when we ask students to make good decisions, their brains might not yet be wired to do what we are asking of them. That doesn’t mean we don’t have rules or expectations. It doesn’t mean we don’t give consequences for not functioning within those rules. But it does mean that we must acknowledge that, as the book by the National Institute of Mental Health says, children’s brains are “still under construction.”

We know, for instance, that the part of the brain that houses impulse control is one of the last parts of the brain to become fully formed. And it doesn’t really finish its neural-evolution until the early 20s. We also know that poverty, hormones, and poor nutrition and hunger can play a role in one’s brain development.

Heck, even a fight with your best friend can influence a decision that can put a kid on the naughty list. So for all of those reasons, we can’t assume "criminal" intentions of our students without providing the steps to help see them through the gloom that can simply be defined as childhood and adolescence.

Some, like me, may consider the term restorative justice a little harsh, but the goal of utilizing restorative justice before harsher methods of discipline is, for lack of a better word, just.  

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Beckett Haight's picture

It was really helpful for me to read this article. I highlighted a few things on my Diigo annotator situation, but I think my biggest takeaway was how Restorative Justice is a step that can lead towards more "traditional" consequences.

That resonates with me because I love behavior management and seeing students progress in this domain, I also feel that the harsher administrative consequences have their place too.

Thanks.

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