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Teaching Opinion

Response: How to Practice Restorative Justice in Schools

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 06, 2016 16 min read
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This week’s question is:

What is restorative justice (also known as restorative practices) and what does it look like in schools?

Recently, there has been the beginning of a push towards restorative justice, also known as restorative practices, in schools. It’s viewed as an alternative to the typical punish/suspend method of discipline that has been historically used, and which have also been found to disproportionately punish students of color.

Today, we’ll examine what restorative practices are and what does it look like in schools. Shane Safir, Jen Adkins, Timothy Hilton, Crystal T. Laura, and Mark Katz share their commentaries on the topic. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Shane, Jen and Timothy on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also want to explore a collection I’ve put together: The Best Resources For Learning About Restorative Practices

Response From Shane Safir

Shane Safir (safirassociates.org) is a leader, coach, and writer who has worked at every level of the school system toward a single goal: equity of opportunity for every student. Her experience spans 20 years in public education and includes founding June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco, an innovative national model identified by leading scholar Linda Darling-Hammond as having “beaten the odds in supporting the success of low-income students of color.” Safir is writing a book for Jossey-Bass called The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for School Transformation:

For several years I had the privilege of leading a school deeply committed to restorative justice--June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco (JJSE). In preparing my response, I talked with JJSE’s outstanding current principal, Matt Alexander, with whom I helped to start the school. Matt summarized the key to RJ perfectly: “You can’t restore justice to the community when you haven’t created a community to begin with.”

In reality, many schools don’t operate as communities; they are transactional institutions where students come to get things-- knowledge and skills, social interaction with peers, a diploma. To practice restorative justice, you have to first build a real community that is worth restoring.

Restorative justice (RJ) is a powerful approach to discipline that focuses on repairing harm through inclusive processes that engage all stakeholders. Implemented well, RJ shifts the focus of discipline from punishment to learning and from the individual to the community. However, it is often misperceived and misapplied.

Given the national push to reduce suspensions, some leaders may perceive restorative justice as a way to improve their discipline data rather than a holistic approach to behavior. Seeing RJ through this narrow lens leads to two problems. First, we stop suspending students but fail to deal with the root causes of behavior issues, including the absence of strong relationships and emotional safety at school. Second, operating under intense pressure, leaders may start to unconsciously rig their suspension data rather than invest in the deeper work of building a community.

If you watched the HBO series “The Wire” about Baltimore’s criminal justice system, you may recall the term “juking the stats” to describe how police manipulated their data to conform to the department’s mandates. We don’t want schools to juke their suspension stats in the name of restorative justice.

To implement restorative justice with fidelity, start with these steps.

• First, intentionally create a community that is anchored in shared values. June Jordan School for Equity uses the acronym RICH to describe its four core values: Respect, Integrity, Courage, and Humility. This provides a common language for students, parents, and teachers to understand what is expected of all members of the school community.

• Second, make participation in the community a requirement, not an option. Lots of things are required in schools: Number 2 pencils, backpacks, binders. Why can’t you ask every student to adopt the core values that signify membership in your sacred community? Think of this as benevolent branding: “This is a special place where you want to belong.” Requiring students to participate in the community means a couple of things. First, they must do their best to practice its values in word and deed. Second, they commit to engage in restorative processes if they have harmed the community or been harmed by another member. There is a reciprocal principle implied here: We will keep you safe, but in return you have to show up as a full participant.

• Third, model and teach your community values. We know that it takes students four to 40 exposures to learn a new vocabulary word. Internalizing your school’s values is no different. If you want the values to live beyond a slogan or poster, take time to teach them in interactive ways like role-playing, reading and writing stories about the values in action, and asking students to recall their life experiences related to the values. Leverage your most personalized school structures--advisory, circle time, community-building days--to explicitly teach the values of your beloved community.

• Finally, enforce the values and be willing to hold students accountable. There’s no cookie cutter approach to restorative justice. You are asking students to make a commitment to stay in relationship with each other and their community. By extension, if they violate or harm that relationship, they need to make amends. Accountability might look like a verbal “talking-to,” having to reflect on their choices in a restorative circle, engaging in a restorative conference with the harmed party, or perhaps even being suspended. There must be real, felt consequences along with opportunities to make amends and learn from mistakes. A helpful guiding principle is that consequences should always be educational in nature rather than punitive. Matt offers, “I don’t care about the quantity of suspensions, I care about the quality.”

Remember the bottom line of restorative justice is this: You have to first invest in building an authentic community that is worth restoring.

Response From Jen Adkins

Jen Adkins has been an educator for 17 years. She has taught in private and public school settings and across grade levels including primary and middle school. In the past 12 years at Luther Burbank High School, she has been a 9/10/12 English teacher, has served as the ASB advisor and is currently a Restorative Practices Facilitator co-teaching the Peer Court Program:

At Luther Burbank High School, the faculty, staff and administration have been working diligently to keep students in the classroom; we work ardently to support one another in supporting our students be present. As such, we estimate about one third of our classroom teachers are employing community circles, with some moving forward with harm circles when necessary. Like many of you, we have also used circles in common planning time, department meetings and even faculty meetings. Along with these restorative practices, it has been equally pressing to have peer groups work to keep students with disciplinary issues engaged in school while being held accountable for their actions. For more than two years now, we’ve been doing just that through our Peer Court.

Peer court is funded as an after-school class, but is considered a peer program that enables students in our community to actively accept responsibility for and repair the harm they have caused through their actions. Here is how it works: when a student is sent to the discipline office, and it is deemed safe and appropriate, they are given the choice to attend peer court, where a judge and jury of their peers will hear their case (presented by a student advocate) and reach agreement on an alternative consequence plan (ACP). The consequences in the ACP differ from traditional punitive consequences such as detention and suspension, and favor things like tutoring, hours spent in a leadership class, and/or serving time on the peer court jury. Once the ACP is completed, students are cleared of any wrong-doings. During the court process, student community advocates interview any teachers or students involved to assess the harm caused. The student (or respondent, as we refer to them) also has an advocate who interviews them thoroughly looking for all facts and any pertinent background information. (We have found that often there is more to their story than just the harm they caused).

This process allows both the respondent and the person(s) harmed a chance to tell their narrative to an impartial member of the peer court. It also allows the advocates of those harmed to suggest an appropriate ACP. Those in peer court have been trained in: asking questions, interviewing, writing statements, speaking to the judge and jury, fair and appropriate ACP’s, coaching the respondent through the process, and checking in with the respondent later.

Ultimately, we’ve seen this process help students understand the wide net their actions cast. This process allows students to accept responsibility and gives students an action plan to move forward productively instead of continuing to repeat the cycle of misbehavior and punitive response from administration.

This class and process is also impactful for our peer court students who take ownership of the justice system in our school community.

Response From Timothy Hilton

Timothy Hilton currently teaches high school Social Studies in South Central Los Angeles, and has taught in the area for the past 7 years. Timothy has experience teaching every level of social studies ranging from Advanced Placement to English Language Development. In addition to teaching in inner city Los Angeles, Timothy is currently a doctoral student at Claremont Graduate University in the field of Educational Policy, Evaluation, and Reform:

Restorative justice is an alternate method of disciplining students that seeks to balance the process between being too permissive and being too punitive. The goal of restorative justice is to work with students (the victims and the accused) to come to a solution rather than simply handing down punishment. Restorative justice seeks to fix the problem, impose fair punishment, foster understanding, and adjust student behavior.

In school, restorative justice look more like cooperative discussions, and less like the traditional handing down of punishment we have known. Restorative justice in practice will include all involved parties discussing the incident in question. The victim will be given the opportunity to share their feelings, as will the accused. Restorative practices must provide equal time to each party as the primary goal is not punishment, but restoration. One way that restorative justice looks different from our more archaic forms of punishment is in the role of the teacher/administrator. Restorative practices use teachers/administrators as facilitators as opposed to the judge and jury. The facilitators’ job is to ask opened ended questions in an effort to foster reflection, not lecture students on behavior. Questions like; what can you do to fix this? How would you feel if the same thing happened to you? And how did your behavior impact your fellow students?

The restorative justice discussion is by no means an alternative to punishment. Students who break the rules should be punished. That being said, when restorative justice is carried out correctly, students will be more likely to accept the punishment without harboring any resentment as they were a part of the process and understand what they did. Furthermore, because the discussion was carried out with the facilitator involved, punishments tend to be more reasonable as they were not made in the heat of the moment.

Response From Crystal T. Laura

Crystal T. Laura is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership at Chicago State University and author of Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School-to-Prison Pipeline:

Restorative justice is a response to wrongdoing that privileges healing and rebuilding the lives impacted by it, not punishment nor retribution. Popularized in the 1970s--a brief window when many Americans were more open to rehabilitating people who commit criminal acts--restorative justice is now being employed in some schools as an alternative way to deal with student misbehavior and conflicts.

By now, most educators know that traditional, exclusionary approaches to student discipline do not improve classroom climate or culture. In fact, exclusionary discipline--such as out-of-school suspension, which is used at extraordinary rates and disproportionately along lines of race, gender, and ability status--has been strongly linked to student disengagement, drop out, and entanglement with the school-to-prison pipeline. Widespread concern about these and other serious consequences has nudged consideration of inclusive, restorative measures.

There are many models of restorative justice and no clear consensus about the best practices in developing, implementing, or measuring the outcomes of a restorative justice school program. What unifies restorative justice programs is the twofold goal of building strong relationships among students, staff, teachers, administrators, and parents while creating safe, productive learning environments for all. However, some of the most common programs include peacemaking circles and/or mediation conferences that bring harmed parties together to talk about issues with the help of a skilled facilitator, and/or youth-centered juries composed of students trained to hear cases of low-level student misconduct.

For more information on exclusionary discipline, readers should check out the Civil Rights Project (). Resources on restorative justice can be found through Project NIA.

Response From Mark Katz

Mark Katz, PhD, has served as the Director of Learning Development Services, an educational, psychological, and neuropsychological center in San Diego, California for the past 33 years. He is a clinical and consulting psychologist and conducts local, regional, and national trainings for schools, healthcare organizations, and community groups working to improve educational and mental health systems of care. He also writes and serves as a contributing editor for Attention Magazine and has worked with colleagues from around the country on the Stop Bullying Now! campaign, a federally sponsored multi-year media campaign designed to increase public awareness of bullying and other forms of school violence. Dr. Katz is the author of On Playing a Poor Hand Well: Insights from the Lives of Those Who Have Overcome Childhood Risks and Adversities and Children Who Fail at School But Succeed at Life: Lessons From Lives Well-Lived (forthcoming in March 2016 from W. W. Norton):

Restorative practices represent a significant paradigm shift from traditional school disciplinary practices, where students who engage in increasingly disruptive behaviors receive increasingly harsh punishments. Restorative practices require instead that students focus on the harm their misbehavior caused others, and what they can do to repair that harm and restore and strengthen relationships that may have been affected in the process. With restorative practices, there’s a shared responsibility among students and teachers to hold each other accountable for maintaining high behavioral expectations, and for creating a culture of trust, safety, and mutual respect.

Effectively implementing restorative practices requires a school-wide commitment to a very different way of relating to one another. Those engaged in wrongdoing, for example, will be asked to respond to several restorative questions: What happened? What were you thinking about at the time? What have you thought about since? Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way? What do you think you need to do to make things right? Those who are harmed respond to restorative questions as well: What did you think when you realized what happened? What impact has this had on you and others? What has been the hardest thing for you? What do you think needs to happen to make things right? Questions are typically posed during teacher-led group meetings referred to as circles, which also include other classmates and/or others in the school community. Circles occur continuously, not only in response to wrongdoing, but also as a way for students and staff to get to know each other better and to function more effectively as a group. Circles build a sense of community. All voices are heard, all share in making important decisions, and all share in the opportunities for developing greater trust, respect, empathy, and mutual understanding (Mirsky, 2014). Circles represent one of many restorative practices, which range from informal to formal.

An increasing number of schools across the U.S. are embracing restorative practices as a guiding philosophy for creating a safe, respectful, and inclusive school culture and for increasing levels of trust among and between students, teachers, and others in the school community (Katz, 2015). Many were initially attracted to these practices by studies showing their effectiveness in preventing and reducing suspensions and expulsions, which are known to occur more frequently among students of color and students with learning and behavior challenges.

Not all students who misbehave at school change their behavior when punished. Some actually start to misbehave more. Rather than feel remorse for how they behaved, they may instead feel unfairly treated, humiliated, or disconnected from their better-behaved peers. Punishing them for misbehavior doesn’t teach them a lesson. In some instances, in fact, it leads to an escalation in misbehavior, culminating in suspension or expulsion. As an alternative to increasingly punitive disciplinary practices, restorative practices can provide these students with far more opportunities to recognize the hurts they have caused, as well far more opportunities to right their wrongs.

To learn more about restorative practices, visit the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) website at: //www.iirp.edu/.

Katz, M. (2015, June). Restorative practices. Attention Magazine, 4-5.

Mirsky, L. (2014, Summer). The power of the circle. Educational Leadership: 51-55.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Shane, Jen, Timothy, Crystal and Mark for their contributions!

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