School Climate & Safety Explainer

Restorative Justice in Schools, Explained

By Brooke Schultz — May 31, 2024 1 min read
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When the Oakland Unified school district’s restorative justice coordinator, David Yusem, walks into one of the district’s schools, he wants to know how it feels: Does it feel caring? Is there beauty on the walls? Do people seem to be happy? Are people showing up because they feel loved?

That’s how he tries to gauge the California district’s nearly two-decade progress with restorative justice practices, a complete reimagining of school culture, and building a school community, while also ultimately dismantling a racially disproportionate discipline structure.

“We know it works from our personal experiences with it,” he said. “I can point to numbers that show it works, but those numbers aren’t as important.”

Student misbehavior has increased following the pandemic, leading to more classroom friction since schools returned to in-person learning. A crisis of chronic absenteeism has eroded community connections, complicating the fostering of a supportive and trusting environment.

Even as educators see an uptick in misbehavior, nearly half of teachers and administrators say their schools are using restorative justice practices more now than five years ago, according to a recent EdWeek Research Center survey. But the purest version of the restorative justice framework is hard to come by, said Allison Payne, a professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania who studies the practice.

“It requires a complete overhaul of not just the disciplinary structure but the full ethos of a school,” she said.

Here’s an overview of what restorative justice is and how it fits into the larger school system.

What is restorative justice?
Under a restorative justice model, any delinquency or victimization is viewed as harm done to a web of relationships in schools, and the response is healing the harm, rather than punishing the perpetrator by excluding, shunning, or stigmatizing them, Payne said.

Under the full model, there would need to be a sense in the school community that everyone belongs and everyone is connected. Any negative behavior, to the point that it brings harm or damages the web of relationships, would be addressed under the concept of: How do we fix those relationships?

“The response is not: ‘You are bad, you need to leave,’” Payne said. “The response is: ‘What you did was wrong, so we need to fix that.’”
What is restorative justice in schools?
More often in schools, restorative justice practices, and punitive measures—such as detention, suspensions, or expulsion—are used simultaneously.

Often, Payne said, interventions and supports are depicted as a pyramid. A majority of students who do little wrong are in the bottom tier. Moving upward, there are smaller groups of at-risk students and those who are misbehaving. Supportive and trusting relationships tend to focus on the bottom tier, where there’s usually a conversation with a teacher or counselor when misbehavior occurs, which is reflective of restorative justice practices.

The top two tiers tend to face punitive responses: They get sent to the principal or get detention—or they’re removed from school entirely.

Sometimes, schools use practices along with punitive approaches, which is like "slapping restorative justice on top of a punitive framework," said Kelly Welch, a professor in the sociology and criminology department at Villanova University who co-authored research with Payne.

“[It's] just a really inconsistent message that kids are getting: ‘OK, well we’ll treat you really restoratively, but then we’re going to treat you harshly if we don’t like what you’re doing,’” she said.

Over time, especially in the last few decades, more schools have implemented restorative justice practices into their disciplinary measures. Only a limited number of schools have fully decided to “burn it down and build it back up” to use the true framework, Payne said.

In Oakland, Yusem, the restorative justice coordinator, said that the district banned “defiance” as a suspension-level offense. Now, most of their suspensions are violence-related. Largely, they’ve seen a decline in exclusionary disciplinary practices.

He said he doesn’t look at restorative justice as an alternative to the punitive measures, but, “if you practice it with fidelity, over time, you’re going to see your suspensions and expulsions go down as a result, because it’s not going to be necessary.”
What are the three main principles of restorative justice?
Restorative justice seeks to get to the core of why harm in the community is happening, said Sandra Pavelka, a professor in the department of political science and public administration at Florida Gulf Coast University, who studies restorative justice practices. It follows three main principles: holding the wrongdoer accountable, involving the victim/survivor, and engaging the community.

It does that by promoting character development; increasing student connections; building classroom community; resolving conflict efficiently; building consensus; planning for the future; achieving mutual understanding; and ritualizing connections, transitions, and change, she said.

“It’s really about establishing resolution, seeking those root harms behind the individual and group behaviors, but also repairing that harm and resolving conflict, and individualizing the case plans for all the students who are involved,” Pavelka said. “As we know, hurt people hurt people, and hurt children will hurt other children.”
What are the R's of restorative practices in schools?
There are four key features, Pavelka said:
  1. Respect: Having respect for everyone by listening to opinions and learning to value them;
  2. Responsibility: Taking responsibility for one’s actions;
  3. Repair: Giving the school community the skills so individuals have the ability to identify solutions that repair harm;
  4. Reintegration: Having a structured, supportive process to resolve harms, and ensure those harms aren’t repeated, without removing students from the school environment.
What are the benefits of restorative justice in schools?
Restorative practices can be used to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and focus on healing harm and resolving conflict, Pavelka said.

Pavelka said it brings a wealth of positive values: developing character, building consensus, achieving mutual understanding, and building school and classroom community.

Villanova's Welch said that students are often treated like criminals in the criminal justice system.

“They are still kids, and they are going to school, and their primary objective is to learn,” she said. “I think this is just such a promising context in which to implement restorative justice.”
What are the disadvantages of restorative justice?
Villanova's Payne said that there's a lack of research with clear positive outcomes. There are some qualitative ones, she said, that suggest there are impacts to student achievement. But so few schools use a true restorative model, there's no gold standard of quantitative results, she said.

One early study by RAND Corporation, a research organization, showed that, in a sample of schools using the practices and comparison schools that didn't, there was a negative impact on some students' academic achievement and no significant decrease in the school-to-prison pipeline. Another, published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, showed no change in school climate.

Pavelka said that people criticize the use of restorative justice as being “soft” on kids exhibiting bad behavior. It coincides with trends seen in the criminal justice system, she said. Sometimes, there are pushes to take harsher approaches to crime, like calling for more police officers and enforcement efforts. Other times, there are approaches that favor stronger support services over policing.

Pavelka said that support for implementing restorative models can come from educators, the school board, and the community. The same is true of its detractors, she said.

“I think it just depends, again, on the political factors,” she said. “It depends on the culture of that community, the culture of those schools because, as you know, each school culture is different.”
How does restorative justice intersect with race, ethnicity, and disproportionate student discipline?
Research has established that Black and Hispanic students face more punitive punishments. In Payne and Welch’s research, they found that schools with a greater proportion of white students tended to use restorative practices more: talking circles, community service, and restitution. Schools with larger minority populations did the opposite: They relied more heavily on detention, suspension, and expulsion.

Not only are schools more likely to use suspension and expulsion for Black and Hispanic students, but they’re less likely to adopt restorative practices altogether, Welch said.

Disciplinary actions in schools make it more likely that children eventually end up in the criminal justice system, Welch said.

“The idea is that if we were to change a lot of that punitive discipline and make it more restorative, it is possible that not only will kids have a more positive experience in school, have better graduation rates, and so forth, but that they will also be less likely to end up in the criminal justice system, and we could reduce some of the racial disparity there,” Welch said.

Yusem said that in Oakland, the number of Latino students facing exclusionary discipline from school is not disproportionate to the population size. But it is true of Black students, he said. It’s an ongoing conversation for the district to be anti-racist and dismantle a pipeline impacting Black students in particular.

“If you look at suspensions, they’ve gone down dramatically, but they’re still racially disproportionate,” he said. “It’s clear we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
What is an example of restorative justice in schools?
For example, Oakland Unified began moving to a restorative justice practice in 2006, after piloting at one middle school. It didn’t start from the district level, though. The community pushed for it, Yusem said. Ultimately, the school saw success. Expulsions dropped to zero. That got the superintendent’s attention.

Yusem said that the school board passed a resolution in 2010 to move to the model to build community and decrease racially disproportionate discipline.

Today, two staff members—Yusem, as the coordinator, and a program manager—oversee the central vision, providing training and coaching. Site-based staff members work on embedding the premise at the school level, through features like talking or peace circles.

Often, Yusem said, people think of restorative justice as something you do to students, rather than something you do with everybody, such as using dialogue circles to create community, rather than just dealing with harm. Hundreds of students, across grade levels, are trained as circle keepers.

It’s hard to do, he acknowledged. It’s taking century-old institutions and changing policies that are “hard-baked” into them, he said. And then there’s turnover: Teachers, principals, and superintendents come and go.

“It can be like digging a hole in the sand where the sand keeps filling it back up. It’s hard to maintain a shift of this magnitude with all those factors I just mentioned,” he said. “It’s not a curriculum. It’s not a three-ring binder we give people and say, ‘Do this now.’ We’re asking people to be a certain way with each other.”
How can restorative justice be implemented?
To use the full framework, there would have to be a complete rethinking of policies and procedures, Payne said. First, educators would have to cease their punitive measures, such as detention, suspension, and expulsion. Meanwhile, educators would have to expand their community support to the entire population of kids—especially the ones who are most at risk to misbehave or the ones who are misbehaving.

Schools likely would have to hire consultants to overhaul the system, and there would be an expense for hiring more people to care for the students, Welch said.

“It would be a somewhat dramatic transformation, given how most schools are doing things now, which is kind of neglecting the problem until it’s really terrible and then the use of these extreme measures,” Welch said.

What's more, there needs to be buy-in from the entire community, Pavelka said, and a willingness to defy larger political headwinds.

“We see that punitive measures in schools come back into play because of political issues,” she said.

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