Search form

The Debate in My Head: Restorative Justice


If it hasn’t reached your school district’s board of education meetings yet, you should be well-aware that a new approach to school discipline called “restorative justice” is sweeping across our nation’s professional development seminars. Although not an entirely new practice, the 2006 implementation in an Oakland school district made media waves, boasting a significant 87% drop in suspensions. In short, the practice turns its back on punitive zero-tolerance policies for a more communal, reflective, and somewhat therapeutic approach. If you’re not familiar, by all means check out the links at the bottom of this article. Seems cool, right?

But the process certainly comes with its struggles, especially around resources, appropriate training, fidelity of practice, and the fine details of implementation. On one hand, you would be hard-pressed to find an educator that wouldn’t wish to help nurture a more honest and just world. On the other hand (despite what we’d like to believe), we’re not superheroes. Today, I share with you the “teacher’s conundrum” around the emergence of restorative practices in our schools.

Me: Studies show that our zero-tolerance practices like suspension are simply not working.

This is a narrative I have been familiar with my entire teaching life. The student gets a couple of days off, or perhaps is forced to stare at a wall within the school building (frantically asking teachers via email to send them work for the day). When the student returns, they tend to be a few days behind and struggling to catch up. Not to mention the fact that we often never really get to addressing and resolving the issue that sent them into punishment in the first place. So, in other words, the “it” is not resolved in the slightest. Chances the issue is going to flare up again immediately? Super high.

I get it. The behaviorist “reward and punishment” style of discipline doesn’t give students a chance to learn about how their actions can take away from a community. Restorative justice nurtures both empathy and community: two aspects of human life that seem to be starving as of late. The world needs to be more restorative in nature. This is an opportunity to change exactly how the future leaders of our world will deal with conflict. Will they react with fear, anger, resentment, and vengeful punishment? Or work together with their community to figure out better solutions to our struggles, take ownership, share, listen, forgive, and heal? The latter feels healthier.

Also Me: Life has consequences, and the world beyond high school doesn’t tend to be very “restorative” in nature.

If you don’t follow through at work, you get fired. If you don’t follow the laws, you end up in court. I don’t want to prepare my students for a world that doesn’t exist. I certainly might want to live in a more restorative, healing world, but at what point am I coddling my students and shielding them from a less forgiving world? At what point am I pretending that every conflict they have is going to result in a therapeutic and heartfelt circle discussion? I don’t want students to expect that sort of environment, only to become overwhelmed when they face a harsh world with sometimes harsh and very real consequences.

Me: Restorative justice creates a great opportunity for students to give back to the community and repair relationships.

This allows the community to take ownership of the issue at hand, as well as the responsibility of “figuring it out” and healing. This suggests the notion that not everything in our universe is dichotomous. Our struggles are complex. And to pretend that they can be solved with a quick, canned punishment does not do justice to that complexity, and will never quite feel honest.

When done well, restorative justice practices ask the students, teachers, and community to take ownership of the issue at hand, as well as the process for resolution. It pays respect to the individual community and is focused around letting those that have violated the trust of the community know that they can choose to repair that trust, that they are still welcome, and that they can be forgiven. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the community is where such a conversation belongs! Too often rules and regulations in schools reflect a national (and commonly outdated) expectation, instead of representing the families, cultures, and beliefs of a district or neighborhood.

Through this process, restorative justice breaks down the classroom and societal power structures we are used to. As an educator, I love this approach. I don’t need students cowering in fear of a detention or a disappointed guardian. I need empowered leaders, ready to take responsibility for their actions, and willing to talk about their struggles openly and honestly. These are the kinds of humans want to help nurture for tomorrow’s world.

Also Me: I don’t want “giving back to the community” to become the punishment.

Our ability to help others when we have the ability to do so - and when they need it the most - is a virtue. It is one of the most beautiful things about being human. We can look at our own circumstances, see someone who is struggling, and make the choice to give - out of earnest compassion and selfless kindness. I would hate to watch a student reluctantly working to “repair the community.” I would hate the narrative of discipline in schools to become, “ugh, I have to go help out other students in homework center” or “ugh, I have to go do community service at the soup kitchen after school today.” The idea that these gifts could be turned into penance makes me very worried about the lessons that could be inadvertently taught.

I also worry that the conversation itself could become the punishment. The “ugh, I have to sit through a bunch of people talking to me and agree with whatever they say” effect. Once again, there’s the potential for us to reinforce avoidant behavior by associating “healthy dialogue” with chastisement. What happens when “talking about it” becomes the new “suspension?” I imagine a world where thoughtful discussion ignites red flags and no one wants to talk about anything, ever.

Me: Restorative circles are super cool.

The idea that students get to have a say in what happens in their community is really quite powerful, and in a perfect world would encourage them to be participatory in local and national politics in the future. Circles make sure that we don’t forget that we are a community. That the actions we take have a very real, human impact. As I suggested earlier, it can break down the “teacher as dictator” stigma that often leads students to want to rebel and disengage in the first place. We often talk about making sure our curriculum is “relevant” to our students. What better way to discover what truly is relevant in their lives than through open discussion? You’ll find many of the frustrations our students are feeling that lead to challenging classroom behaviors are rooted in the very real zeitgeist of our world.

It is also empathy practice. “Offenders” get a chance to share what their experience has been. “Victims” are able to share what their experience has been. Neither is prioritized; they just “are.” When you have a list of rules and consequences, you can forget that you are dealing with human beings, all who wish to love and be loved: work toward things that please them, avoid those things that feel painful. Circles put everyone face-to-face with that human component. It’s rare, it's relevant, and is meaningful every time.

Also Me: But are all of my students ready to participate in this sort of work?

Are they mature enough? Self-aware enough? We have to be careful. Their brains are still developing. In fact, during these years of intense brain development, the limbic system (the part of the brain that controls emotional responses) tends to have greater control of the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that allows us to plan, control our impulses, and facilitate higher-order thinking). In short, their emotional responses might have caused the trouble in the first place, and their brains simply might not be developed enough to reach the higher-ordering thinking involved with thoughtful reflection, empathy, and processing a greater community’s needs. When put in that context, negative reinforcement actually begins to make some sense!

I might ask whether or not districts, too, are ready for this sort of work. Schools that don’t have the resources to really put time into figuring out restorative practices could do it poorly, leading to a feeling of lawlessness and disorder that could feel unsafe. Remember, a part of our promise to our students is to create a safe space for them to learn and grow. A school where the restorative practices are unclear could make students feel like they can do as they wish and “nothing will happen”. The biggest resource schools need to wrestle with? Time. We’re told to plan every single minute in the classroom, delivering skills and content that are essential to survival in the world beyond our walls. We are held accountable to these principles with standardized tests, and our personal salaries and state funding to our districts are tied to these expectations. And circles take time. Coming up with clever and appropriate restorative actions takes a lot of time. Diving in and investing in our communities takes a lot of time and effort, that needs to be valued on an institutional level before it can be honestly valued in the classroom. If we can’t hold space for this sort of work ourselves, how can we ever expect our students to?

What then?

Well, it’s up to your community, isn’t it? If you’re curious, I absolutely encourage folks to learn more about restorative justice practices here and here. If you’re already in practice, and would like some new resources for your school, check out this collection. And a must-read for any school even beginning the discussion around such programming is restorative guru Joe Brummer’s “Five Reasons Implementation of Restorative Practices Fails in Schools”.



Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.