What administrators should know about implementing a restorative justice program

In my first two blog posts, I defined restorative justice (RJ) and highlighted relevant research of RJ programs that shows both the promise and potential challenge of implementing RJ in schools. In this post, I’ll talk about the systemic factors that administrators should consider prior to implementing an RJ program.

An administrator is any individual who contributes to setting the stage for the broader implementation of RJ programs and policies. This can include district-level staff, school administrators, implementation coordinators, and members of community organizations that assist schools with RJ-related initiatives. Moving forward, I’ll refer to this group broadly as “implementers,” as they are the group thinking about how RJ is functioning systemically in their contexts. I’ll write a separate post that addresses the more pedagogical and relational practices that may be more relevant for individuals like teachers and support staff.

Readiness process and pre-implementation work

Implementing RJ is a multiyear task that requires a substantial amount of theoretical and practical thinking. For RJ to transform school communities, there are a variety of moving pieces that are necessary to tackle in the year or months leading up to implementation to ensure a cohesive vision and that RJ is reinforced by resources and an open and committed community.

A district’s level of commitment to RJ dictates how the initiative is perceived by school staff and can either engender a lot of energy and willingness among schools or be perceived as an additional burden.

Many implementers have embraced a “ramp up,” or readiness, period that allows schools to plan for eventual RJ adoption. Throughout the readiness process, implementers can take time to critically examine and plan for how RJ programs will function in their contexts, bringing a systemic lens to their school district at large and individual schools. This is important because committing to RJ is committing to a process, rather than a clearly defined outcome. The process can also help educators and students begin to familiarize themselves with restorative practices so that the full launch of the program does not seem sudden or unknown. In this way, we can think of the readiness period as engaging the appropriate stakeholders to begin building the foundation for the eventual transition to a restorative culture.

Considerations for district leaders

At the district level, implementers should recognize that just like with other initiatives, scaling RJ programs will largely necessitate clearly defined resources and parameters for schools embarking on implementation. Ultimately, a district’s level of commitment to RJ dictates how the initiative is perceived by school staff and can either engender a lot of energy and willingness among schools or be perceived as an additional burden that schools are asked to implement alongside the many other initiatives or mandates expected of them.

If a district is lukewarm or opposed to RJ, we can imagine that they’ll be less likely to devote enough resources to implementing schools to be successful and thus are likely creating a contentious backdrop that will make implementation more challenging. This doesn’t mean that implementers in these contexts shouldn’t try to implement RJ, but it highlights that the strategies of implementation should consider the broader district support and resources that will be provided as they aim to launch RJ. In particular, district-controlled factors, like funding, competing policies, and malleability of practices to make adequate space for RJ-related services, will impact the broader system in which implementers will need to navigate.

The roles of leadership and empowerment

A natural extension of examining district-level involvement during the readiness process is aligning on who is given the autonomy to lead the RJ work.

An RJ rollout that is district-mandated may look and feel different from a program that is teacher or community driven. In the optimal scenario, implementers will need to have a plan to engage and empower stakeholders from each part of the system (i.e., district administration, school administration, educators, students, families, and community organizations) to ensure that RJ is being implemented in a way that is fundamentally different from normative practice. Without this component, the foundational RJ principle of power sharing is not given space to thrive, and the program will run the risk of becoming siloed among particular community members, hierarchical in ethos, or a reformation of the status quo.

Systemic thinking and social justice

The RJ philosophy is inherently rooted in equity and social justice principles. Many districts that have implemented RJ often rely on restorative practices to help mitigate social injustices like racism in school discipline practices, but to do so, implementers need to be given the space to help the district and schools identify problematic organizational practices in their systems and tweak or reimagine them to be more equitable. RJ is not a panacea for inequality, but for schools to have a chance at transforming culture and systemic bias, standard practice needs to be malleable enough for implementers and communities to facilitate the change they want to happen.

Committing to RJ is committing to a process, rather than a clearly defined outcome.

Before embarking on implementation, it is necessary for implementers to have a sense of the systemic issues in their context, know which stakeholders to engage to address those issues, and create the parameters needed to facilitate change. Thus, to help balance the ambiguity inherent in RJ practices, it is ideal to have a clear sense of the motivation behind adoption and to clearly articulate a theory of change that helps the community understand the broader vision behind transitioning to RJ.

Integrating policies and procedures

The practical constraints of implementing RJ are potentially daunting because they often conflict or compete with normative expectations in schools. For example, the ideal RJ process to address a disagreement between students may interrupt learning time and could quickly become a logistical issue if multiple incidents need to be addressed within a short time frame. Thus, any policies or procedures associated with RJ need clearly defined guidance around how they’ll be integrated with other procedures or expectations.

Further, it is important for implementers to understand when and how RJ practices are expected to be integrated within the normal school schedule. Research shows that schools that are able to designate time for RJ practices like community-based circles are more successful in sustaining them over time.

What success looks like

It is important for implementers to align on what success may look and feel like in their context. Indicators of success could include measurable things, like student outcomes, staff retention, or family involvement, but it could also include things that are more difficult to measure, like how things feel or how connected staff feel with students and families.

Because implementing RJ is a multiyear, iterative, and nonlinear process, it is important to align on how to best measure outcomes of interest throughout implementation and to continually collect the appropriate data (quantitative or qualitative) that will help implementers understand how these outcomes are changing over time. Standard data systems are not designed to adequately track the success of RJ programs, so implementers will need to be creative and work with evaluators prior to implementation to help gather appropriate information that will be crucial in tracking progress and suggesting areas for improvement throughout the process. This may include capitalizing on existing administrative data, developing tracking systems for RJ services, and conducting new surveys, along with qualitative interviewing and observations.

In closing

Ultimately, implementing RJ is an iterative process that will likely include many successes and challenges as schools navigate this new territory. Embarking on a readiness process will help prepare implementers for the road ahead but will not completely insulate them from organizational and interpersonal challenges that may arise during RJ adoption.

Because RJ is an ambitious undertaking, the cohesiveness of expectations, leadership models, malleability of organizational processes, and resources associated with it is arguably more critical to optimal implementation than embracing the philosophy itself. In my next post, I’ll discuss more about how educators and support staff can integrate restorative practices into their classrooms and student interactions.

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