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Why We Should Implement Restorative Justice In Our Schools

Dear Future Teachers,

In my previous post, Understanding the School-To-Prison Pipeline, I briefly touched on restorative justice as a means to decrease the inequitable policing and punishment of students of color. Restorative justice would benefit ALL students, as it creates a more tolerant environment where students are really encouraged to improve their behavior. I was first introduced to restorative practices last summer at Student U Durham. Later, one of my classes discussed restorative justice in education, and in preparation for this post, I've done a lot of outside research on the topic. Restorative practices are much different than the disciplinary procedures I had witnessed in my own educational experience, so it took some adjusting, but I feel that approaching student misconduct through restorative practices over zero-tolerance policies, we can really make a difference in the lives of students.

What is restorative justice?

Restorative justice is "a theory of justice that focuses on meditation and agreement rather than punishment." ( Restorative justice practices have been around for hundreds of years, but more recently they have been implemented in our legal system, and now our school systems. Restorative justice would operate to eliminate harsh punishments, such as zero-tolerance policies that have long-term negative impacts on students.

Elements of restorative justice.

  • Prevention. The first goal of restorative practices is to create an environment that prevents misbehavior from occurring by building a community within the classroom. Tangible ways that you can create a positive community are:

  1. Creating a code of conduct WITH your students. Together you will generate a list of guidelines that everyone in the classroom is responsible to uphold. Students should be part of this process because they will feel more responsible of rules THEY helped formulate.

  2. Leading students in circles. Each student will have the chance to open up, share ideas, be vulnerable, and express themselves to the class. Students will sit in a circle so that everyone can be seen equally. There is a talking piece that allows the student holding it to command the full attention and respect of their peers. Circles can be utilized for community building as well as healing when harm has been done (when a misbehavior negatively impacts the class).

  • Intervention. This stage is normally when students would receive a punishment for their misbehavior. Rather than resorting to punitive methods, this would be the time where the student(s) would make things right with the impacted party. To facilitate this step, you could:

  1. Host a healing circle. This circle can be smaller, only involving the individuals who are impacted by the misbehavior. Within this circle, all parties will have a chance to discuss what happened, guided by the teacher, administrator, or counselor. During this circle, the student who misbehaved will have a chance to see how their actions have harmed the other individuals, and how that can impact their relationships. Students will understand the effects of their choices and it will cause them to think about their choices more heavily in the future.

  2. Ask nonjudgemental questions. As the mediator, it is important that you stay neutral rather than use accusatory language. Ask questions like "What happened?", "How did it happen?", "How did it make you feel?", "What needs to be done to make things right?", etc. Together, students and mediator will come up with an action plan to solve the situation. Often times in this stage of the process, students can uncover misunderstandings that led to disagreements between peers as well! This step can help recover and strengthen relationships between students.

  • Reintegration. Students can return to the classroom, hopefully with brighter attitudes and positive energy. Teachers create a supportive environment for students who are re-entering the classroom space to maintain a restorative atmosphere.

What does restorative justice look like in our schools?

  • More counselors and less police officers on campus

  • No zero-tolerance policies

  • Circles, both community building and healing in nature

  • Kind and supporting rapport with students

  • Amplification of student voices in creating a code of conduct and in their disciplinary decisions

The image below is from I really appreciate how it compares a punitive school environment to a restorative one.

The next image is one I found in Implementing restorative justice: A guide for schools at This image depicts the differences in language used in punitive vs. restorative schools, and how the focus of restoration instead of punishment is present in restorative justice schools. Both images highlight the desirability of restorative practices over punishment.

Benefits of implementing restorative practices.

  • Improved classroom behavior.

  • More time teaching rather than focusing on disciplinary practices. Students are more likely to admit to wrongdoing than in punitive environments.

  • Students spend more time in the classroom when they aren't expelled or suspended.

  • Development of effective conflict resolution skills.

  • Educators can address the root problems of behavioral issues.

  • Community building.

  • Works to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline.

Challenges of implementing restorative practices.

  • It takes time to shift from a punitive environment to a restorative one. It could take several years to fully rollout an RJ plan.

  • ALL teachers and staff need to be on board by dedicating time and commitment to using restorative practices. Some teachers may feel like restorative justice is "too lenient".

  • Underfunded schools may lack the money to find appropriate training and hire counselors.

Tips for schools who seek to implement sustainable restorative practices.

  • Hire and consistently train teachers through professional development on how to practice restorative justice.

  • Hire a professional to facilitate and oversee restorative justice training throughout the school year, helping educators as needed.

  • Create school policies that include and support restorative practices.

  • Address your own biases and reflect on your instinct to punish students.

  • Assess your disciplinary records; is there a racial disparity in students who are punished? Is there an overwhelming amount of misbehavior reports? What's the main type of misbehavior reported?

  • Include students in the implementation process.

Changing the disciplinary procedures within a classroom or a school will not happen overnight. It is a challenging shift, but a necessary one. Restorative justice can look a little different depending on your group of kids, so flexibility and understanding your students is key. If you're overwhelmed, it's okay! Take your time in researching and reflecting on how your classroom can shift to be a more restorative one! Encourage the administrators at your school to look into restorative justice, write to your district representatives to encourage increasing funds to be allocated to the implementation, understand the benefits on the educational environment for students. It will take a lot of work, but I know you are all ready for the challenge!

Much love,

Emily B.


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