Restorative justice explained

School districts across the US have increasingly adopted restorative justice (RJ) practices to address concerns around equity, school climate, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Once thought of as an out-of-the-box alternative disciplinary intervention used by only a small handful of schools, RJ programs have exploded over the past decade, with most large urban school districts now embracing the practices in some form. But what does it mean when school systems adopt RJ? The truth is, there are many answers to that question, and the wide-ranging meanings, interpretations, and implementation strategies associated with RJ can make it confusing for educators to make sense of what committing to RJ really means.

In the coming months, I will write more about RJ in a series of posts designed to address the nuances of its implementation by providing a critical and digestible breakdown of what it means to embrace RJ, an overview of relevant research, and guidance for educators and administrators who are implementing RJ. While this series should not be read as endorsement of RJ as the only way of addressing systemic issues in schools, I do believe in the promise of RJ as a toolkit that can create the conditions necessary for school transformation.

What is restorative justice?

RJ practices have a long, indigenous-rooted history and were first incorporated into mainstream US institutions as a means of responding to and repairing harm in the criminal justice system. The core premise of RJ in criminal justice spaces is to center concern for victims and aim to meet their needs, both concretely and symbolically in a way that reorients traditional approaches to justice that involve punitive or carceral consequences.

Many students do not experience optimal learning environments—especially if they identify with a group that is historically marginalized.

In schools, RJ practices promote equitable and relational learning environments through policies and practices that support students through conflicts in lieu of exclusionary disciplinary practices (e.g., suspension or expulsion). Unlike traditional hierarchical school environments, RJ encourages schools to exhibit a continual community orientation that democratizes school environments by equalizing the voices of students, educators, administrators, and staff.

In the book Justice on Both Sides, Dr. Maisha Winn argues that RJ represents a transformational paradigm shift that allows schools to reimagine discipline and punishment and establish the mindset that all children are valuable and worthy of affirming learning practices. While many may think this is a value that is already commonly shared, the reality is that many students do not experience optimal learning environments—especially if they identify with a group that is historically marginalized. For example, Black students are disproportionately likely to experience racism, low expectations, and exclusionary discipline (among other things) at school, which have facilitated stark inequality in educational outcomes.

Most school leaders are aware of these problems and have been trying to address them for decades, but few are equipped or resourced enough to adequately mitigate them given their systemic nature. This has been particularly apparent as educational inequalities have remained, despite the wide array of interventions that have swept through the K–12 discourse. Among common issues with such initiatives is that they are often implemented from the top down and lack a system-level focus that aims to change structural conditions rather than focusing merely on outcomes. RJ, however, has the potential to be different and transformational if implemented with intention and integrity.

Which values and practices make restorative justice transformational?

Restorative justice is especially valuable because of the following:

  1. RJ rebalances power within schools, centering student voice and empowering staff to develop relational processes for addressing challenges and facilitating optimal school environments.
  2. RJ provides a toolkit for educators to critically examine their school systems and support individuals within these systems to make them more equitable.

A foundational RJ practice is the community-building circle. Restorative circles provide a medium to build trust or address community issues in a process that encourages equal opportunity input and listening among community stakeholders. Circle practices can be used proactively to build a culture of trust between students and educators, or reactively to address harmful behaviors and incidents that impact the community at large. In this way, power can be rebalanced.

Because RJ is rooted in equity and social justice principles, embracing the framework and implementing restorative practices provides school communities with a toolkit to address systemic challenges present in their local contexts.

As many schools struggle to address inequities related to student identity, socioeconomic backgrounds, and learning abilities, most systems are designed to address these challenges through top-down policy or programmatic mandates. In an RJ framework that encourages input from multiple stakeholders, school leaders have a toolkit to begin to address these challenges holistically through collaboration and engagement with educators, students, and families. While this framing shift is not a cure-all, it gives stakeholders the agency to produce and influence change that they think will move school environments in the right direction.

RJ practices promote equitable and relational learning environments through policies and practices that support students through conflicts in lieu of exclusionary disciplinary practices.

In this way, RJ provides a toolkit that encourages creative and relational solutions to the systemic problems that many schools face while remaining rooted in the equity values that most schools have but struggle to realize.

Moving forward with intention

Schools using RJ can reimagine and redesign how schooling works in their community, rather than relying solely on top-down mandates that may not entirely suit their local needs.

Despite this promise, RJ also has the potential to be implemented poorly if adoption follows the same formula as the interventions that precede it. The complexity here is that while RJ is promising and has potential, the practices, when adopted, must operate alongside existing academic and behavioral policies and norms. Thus, transitioning to RJ is not easy, nor is full transformation entirely possible given that the ideal RJ process may not coincide with the ideal academic process. For example, schools must ask themselves, how can we make time for circle practices and satisfy curriculum or instructional time requirements?

My upcoming post will focus on the nuances of RJ implementation, providing relevant research that may guide how implementors, administrators, and teachers approach RJ in their contexts. The goal of this series is to provide you with tools that may assist you in implementation but also acknowledge the challenge (and sometimes contradiction) inherent in embracing RJ policies.

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