What the research tells us about restorative justice in K–12

In “Restorative justice explained,” I introduced restorative justice (RJ) as a potential tool for transformation that schools can use to address the school-to-prison pipeline.

Because of the promise of RJ, school districts have begun to adopt the practices at a rate that outpaces research on the programs. As more studies emerge, we’re beginning to get a clearer sense of the promises and potential challenges that accompany RJ implementation. In this post, I’ll dive into RJ research and identify the key components to consider when approaching RJ in your school or district.

How restorative programs function in K–12

Before we look at outcomes, it’s important to consider how RJ programs function within schools because this directly contributes to subsequent outcomes.

The implementation of RJ varies widely between school districts and often between schools within one district. Despite sharing core values and principles, no two RJ programs are exactly alike because each program is shaped, in part, by the community in which it is implemented. Notably, schools that adopt RJ often do so within the confines of existing school or district policies, rather than as a complete replacement of those policies.

While many may note that completely replacing existing school policies is not feasible, this distinction is important because implementors of RJ need to negotiate between RJ and traditional approaches to schooling. For example, if a school has both RJ and zero-tolerance discipline policies, the inherent contradiction between the two approaches may lead to a variety of outcomes. Without clear guidance on how to bring the two approaches together, the ambiguity inherent in RJ adoption may either help or exacerbate existing problems. Although there are RJ programs that have made positive impacts on their community, we rarely see programs that are resourced and autonomous enough to be considered standalone programs that completely govern school policies and practices. Most existing studies on RJ should be interpreted with this in mind.

What the research tells us

Because negotiation is needed, transitioning to RJ will take time, and research suggests that a program may need to mature for three to five years before it begins to have an observable impact on student outcomes. Further, existing data systems are not always designed to adequately evaluate the full reach of RJ programs, which makes evaluating RJ something worth doing locally. It’s critical to remember that what worked in one place may not work in another and, similarly, that the challenges of one context may not exist in another.

For restorative justice to be considered a success, we need to see that these programs are also helping reduce racial disparities in schools.

Evidence of the promise of RJ practices is well-documented. For students, research has found that RJ programs have been associated with improved perceptions of school climate, reductions in bullying, and reductions in student suspension rates in multiple contexts. School discipline outcomes have been more thoroughly researched, with studies linking RJ practices to a reduction of defiance and misconduct referrals by teachers, which is promising because these low-level infractions drive much of the disparities in school discipline.

Considering these promising findings, it may be natural to assume that RJ practices are having a universal positive impact on students and that RJ is indeed helping slow the school-to-prison pipeline. Important for this conversation, however, is acknowledging the inherent racial disparities present in school discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline. Thus, for RJ to be considered a success, we need to see that RJ programs are also helping reduce racial disparities in schools. At present, research is mixed on this question, as RJ has helped reduce racial disparities in some contexts and unintentionally exacerbated them in others.

To further explore the complexities of race, let’s look at a 2021 study conducted by me and colleagues at UC Irvine. We evaluated the use of RJ in Meadowview Public Schools (MPS), which is a pseudonym for a large urban public school district in the western US.

MPS worked with a local nonprofit to implement RJ in 2008 after citywide concerns about school discipline disparities became a top priority for the district. Between 2008 and 2013, the district implemented RJ in six schools (each used a different approach) with the goal of reducing discipline rates and police and juvenile justice incidents. MPS used RJ as an alternative to traditional disciplinary punishment and designed RJ procedures that operated like filters meant to deter students from suspension or expulsion.

The approach in MPS resulted in several findings:

  • Suspension rates declined sizably from 5.1% in the baseline year to 0.4% in the fifth RJ year.
  • Findings materialized beginning the second year of implementation and didn’t become statistically significant until the fourth year.
  • Stark reductions were driven almost exclusively by suspension rate declines for non-Black students. Black student suspension rates were unchanged under RJ, and the Black/white suspension rate gap grew from 2-1 to 30-1 by the fifth year of RJ.
  • Disparities in suspension rates were driven by suspensions for low-level insubordination offenses, which were essentially eliminated for non-Black students and remained elevated for Black students.

Understanding why RJ programs succeed

From one perspective, the RJ practices implemented in MPS were successful because schools that implemented RJ saw marked decreases in their suspension rates. However, the persistence of racial disparities here is striking, as the practices that were initially implemented to reduce racial disparities unintentionally widened them. Thus, the story here is nuanced. There is clear evidence that RJ had some success in reaching the first part of their goal, but largely failed in changing the underlying racial disparities. A couple of tensions inherent in MPS may help explain why:

  • RJ was instituted for race-specific reasons but implemented as a race-neutral policy.
  • RJ was implemented within the existing discipline system, which allowed racism to permeate throughout the RJ program.

Informal interviews with RJ implementers in MPS revealed that the district largely struggled to address race and racism in their schools. Research shows that adopting a colorblind approach to racial problems, even if well-meaning, can further racial disparities rather than mitigate them. These types of approaches also increase the ambiguity in RJ, which may cause implementers to selectively choose which facets of RJ to embrace and which to ignore.

When coupled with the existing disciplinary structure at MPS, this approach may have allowed discretion to determine which students were referred to RJ and which were funneled into the traditional disciplinary system. This may seem like a small decision on a daily basis, but taking that extra step could have created a system in which RJ became an appropriate response for some (mostly white) kids, leading Black students to become further entrenched in the most punitive responses. Because RJ was layered on top of an exclusionary discipline system, the same racial dynamics that initially produced racial disparities were at play throughout RJ implementation.

What lies ahead

It’s important to interpret the findings of the study at MPS not as an indictment on RJ but, rather, as illuminating the challenges of addressing systemic and multilayered racialized inequalities in schools. As disconcerting as the findings are, they are specific to how RJ operated in MPS and how people in those communities responded to and implemented it. Thus, they are not applicable to the impacts that RJ might have elsewhere given different community contexts. Most importantly, all our findings changed over time, which indicates that RJ implementation is not a static or linear process. Like with other interventions, approaches to school discipline will change over time, and responses to racial disparities will as well (likely at a different pace). So will the strength of student-teacher relationships, familiarity with RJ, and procedural changes.

There are so many moving components and strategies to implementing RJ. Programs need to be embraced with clear buy-in, resources, and intention. In the coming weeks, I’ll discuss more about how administrators and teachers can approach RJ.

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