Last fall, I was physically attacked by a student while helping another teacher in their classroom. This was my fourth documented assault at my middle school, and I gave my two-month notice shortly thereafter. Teachers cannot teach, and students cannot learn, in an unsafe school.
During my nearly two-year tenure, our administration had been pushing for restorative justice practices. While Denver public schools, where I taught, does not have a uniform policy on restorative justice for all its schools, the district had been teaming up with local organizations and making a concerted effort to implement changes, with trainings, data collection, and Restorative Practice Coordinators.
Fifteen Denver schools currently have grants from the district to support this approach. At my school, however, we were given no additional funding or supports. The goal of restorative justice—to limit suspensions, detentions, and arrests (especially in racially inequitable systems of discipline) and replace them with intentional consequences that promote accountability and support personal growth—is incredibly important. But with poor implementation and inadequate resources, the results can be unacceptable. We shouldn’t do restorative justice unless we do it right.
A school district cannot simply say that it's going to become a restorative justice district and add no additional training, funding, or partnerships."
Our school did its best. We did some of the things necessary for restorative justice: We made space for intentional discourse, asked students to fill out reflection sheets during interventions, and limited suspensions and expulsions. However, our administrators and staff had little to no formal training in how to lead restorative conversations. We didn’t have alternative suspension placements and activities, nor did we have the outside partnerships, therapy services, or funding associated with comprehensive and effective restorative justice systems. Students would get away with both minor infractions and more severe misbehavior, which eventually threatened the overall safety of our school. More crucially, the needs of these students were not being met.
Limiting suspension-worthy offenses and passing around a stuffed animal are no substitute for a well-run restorative justice program. Our toolbox was empty. I never had a restorative conversation with the student who physically attacked me. It was not initiated by an administrator, and I did not have the training or the ability to initiate it myself.
A 2018 study by Matthew Steinberg of the University of Pennsylvania and Johanna Lacoe at Mathematica Policy Research highlights several crucial lessons required to administer a healthy school-based restorative justice program:
First, suspending students for nonviolent misconduct does not benefit the misbehaving student or their peers. Restorative justice can serve as a valuable tool to help students process nonviolent misbehavior. But violent misbehavior, even under restorative justice, often demands a period of time during which the student should be off the school property.
Secondly, the study’s authors found that, “We should not expect changes in student behavior simply by removing consequences for student misconduct.” Effective restorative justice programming does not remove penalties. Rather, it makes consequences more intentional. It is a common misconception that restorative justice does not support suspensions or further discipline. Rather, students may do an alternative suspension placement and complete constructive assignments that help them to process the incident. They might also engage in a guided reflective discussion and activity.
Finally, for restorative justice to work, schools must have additional supports. A school district cannot simply say that it’s going to become a restorative justice district and add no additional training, funding, or partnerships. To quote the researchers, again, “district-level policy reforms designed to reduce the use of suspensions should be coupled with intensive school-level supports for schools struggling the most with student misconduct.” If we are to reduce suspensions, we must offer schools a viable alternative response to student misbehavior.
In 2003, Clayton County, Ga., created the nation’s first school-justice partnership. Since then, it has become a model for effective school restorative justice programming. The more than 20 districts that have adopted the county’s model use a “multidisciplinary approach,” a cocktail of partnerships, people development, resources, and structures designed to effectively run restorative justice programs.
The model relies on intentional collaboration between schools, mental and behavioral health specialists, law enforcement, juvenile justice officials, and local community organizations. These districts ensure adults have the support and training necessary to carry out restorative justice best practices. Services include crisis intervention, family-focused counseling, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
In Clayton County, this has meant investing the money and resources necessary to support those aims. In the fiscal year 2018, Clayton’s budget for the partnership was $4,416,480. They also received an additional $838,366 in grant funding from a variety of sources. And it has paid off. Between 2003 and 2018, Clayton County’s average daily population in juvenile detention fell 75 percent. The rate of youths of color committed to the juvenile-justice system has decreased 64 percent, and less than 1 percent of students referred to alternative programs were rearrested before their court case closed.
Clayton County has been successful because it has set itself up for success. If Denver, and other districts, are to truly advocate for restorative justice, they must go all in. We need a comprehensive set of policies to help eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline. Students need firm boundaries at school, consistent positive and negative consequences, spaces to reflect, and trusted and trained adults who can help them to process trauma, emotional responses, and typical adolescent rebellion.
Restorative justice programming should also involve strategic use of all the local resources available to schools. Denver, for example, with its access to the outdoors, and numerous youth organizations and cultural centers, can take advantage of community partnerships to enrich a restorative justice program. Finally, districts must put their money where their mouth is, through a dedicated application of funds for professional development, increased hiring of social workers and psychologists, and strategic programming.
To me, that sounds a lot more promising than a few peace circles.