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What You Should Know About RJ

Restorative practices are here and likely to become even more common.

Restorative practices continue to gain ground as a solution to discipline and school culture issues in schools, but often there is misunderstanding about what they are and what they mean to teachers. 

Here are eight key points about restorative justice (RJ) that might help you understand where it has come from and how it can be implemented.

1) The pipeline. Restorative practices have a long history, but they probably began being used most often in this country in the criminal justice system and then in schools as the phrase "school to prison pipeline" began to be used. The high rates that students of color and those with other challenges were suspended became an issue, along with the fact that those students then were most likely to end up in jail.

2) The idea. Since traditional punishments – and especially suspensions – don't seem to resolve the problems with discipline and behavior or disruptions to a positive school climate, what would?. The idea behind RJ is to restore relationships and have the offending student understand the cause and affect of their actions and change behavior. It often involves victims talking with the student who was responsible. It focuses on the student's role in a community – being responsible for what they do to its members and all students understanding that it provides support.

3) Quick fix?  No, experts say. A recent report from the University or Rochester concludes that schools in that city who have tried the practice have had success, but that the process takes patience and time.

4) Support from policymakers. The Obama administration encouraged schools to find alternatives to tradition disciplinary systems and to cut suspensions, but while the Trump administration has suggested it would like to reverse direction, those who are critical of restorative practices say they have not acted quickly enough. Meanwhile, at least 35 states have approved legislation promoting the use of restorative justice in schools and in prison.

5) Which problem? Experts say it works best when it is used with all types – so that it becomes part of the culture of the school – including with bullying or misbehavior by students or issues between a teacher and a student or even some circumstances involving conflict with parents or others in the community.

6) Always a circle? The familiar circle, where the process of reconciliation is carried out, is often the most common approach, but the practice can involve less formal action such as the way adults talk to students.  A detailed  report from a number of top education organizations explains the many ways it can take shape – from community conferencing and circles to peer juries and mediations and other more informal practices. In some cases, community service is involved. There are several good guides to what schools have done, including from San Francisco, Denver and Baltimore.

7) Buying in. Like any new initiative, RJ requires that a whole school buy into the approach, and that isn't easy. Experts say discipline is a difficult facet of education to change, and critics have been quick to claim that it lets misbehaving students off the hook and can make a school less safe. Critics also say that schools are being forced to cut suspensions even if behavior isn't improving, so some adults may feel that way and are less likely to be excited about the approach.

8) Does it work? A research report in 2014 noted that there is a lot of "descriptive" assessments of RJ with observations about it, but not a lot of careful research about the results. It did find that there were indications that it helped with academics, discipline, absenteeism and school climate. More recently experts are beginning to say they have concrete results that  it does improve school culture and student performance, but also that it only works when there is strong school leadership, buy in, professional development and even full-time counselors to help.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (