As educators, we have likely witnessed bullying, violence, and other inappropriate behaviors in our classrooms or school corridors.
Though discipline is an unfortunate fact of school life, policies like “zero tolerance,” school policing, and detention/suspension tend to punish students by stalling their education and stripping them of dignity—often, they don’t even prevent future bad behavior.
Thankfully, K-12 schools are places of learning where we can evaluate our experience and adjust. So let’s talk about a method that fits perfectly with the growth of social and emotional learning (SEL): School-based restorative justice is a fair, empathetic way to teach children accountability and give them real-world opportunities to put the Golden Rule (“treat others how you want to be treated”) into practice.
Educators are already using restorative principles to reframe and replace discipline in K-12 schools, create teachable moments that benefit everyone, and decrease problem behavior. Let’s dive in.
What is restorative justice?
School-based restorative justice is an alternative to the traditional system of school discipline. It’s adapted from a similar restorative approach to criminal justice: a response to wrongdoing that considers the victims, offenders, and communities involved.
Furthermore, it’s rooted in indigenous practices, like those of the Māori in New Zealand, and has ties to racial justice.
Applied to schools, restorative justice has the following goals:
- Hold the responsible student(s) accountable for their actions
- Give those who were harmed an opportunity to share their story and have their feelings validated
- Create an action plan, with relevant community support, to help the responsible student(s) make things right
- Over time, reduce incidences of similar behavior in the student body
The restorative approach invites all parties to the table with mutual respect as a prerequisite.
In this way, school-based restorative justice can function both as an equitable, reactive measure and a proactive, preventative measure where children are encouraged to take ownership of school rules and reasonable consequences.
How does restorative justice fit into K-12 schools?
While “zero tolerance” towards bullying and violence seems to create a firm line in the sand, in practice, it hasn’t improved school safety. Instead, such policies can harm and antagonize the students involved, i.e. students are unilaterally disciplined and don’t generally learn from the experience.
School-based restorative justice, on the other hand, enables students to learn the consequences of their actions and how to handle similar situations better in the future.
Restorative justice asks all parties to recount what happened, and for the responsible student(s) to consider: Who did it impact? How do you make it right?
There are a few different ways this looks in practice. Sometimes, a facilitator brings the students together in a setting that allows for free, safe communication. Other times, when the student(s) who was harmed doesn’t want to meet with the responsible student(s), the parties are interviewed separately about the incident.
In both cases, this dialogue leads to a concrete agreement about how to move forward. The agreement may include an apology, creative projects, community service, other forms of restitution, and mental health and/or behavioral referrals.
When implemented effectively, restorative justice is an inclusive practice that gives everyone a voice, supports social and emotional development, and has positive mental health outcomes.
Examples of restorative justice in K-12 schools
Roxanne Claassen (wife of Ron Claassen, an expert in the field of criminal justice-based restorative justice) shared this story about implementing restorative justice in her Fresno, California elementary school classroom:
In one instance, two of Claassen’s eighth grade boys broke a paper towel dispenser in the bathroom. At first, no one admitted responsibility. Claassen told them, “We have a restorative discipline system here, so we accept responsibility and can make things as right as possible. But we can’t do that unless someone accepts responsibility.”
The boys admitted they’d done it. Claassen called a meeting with all the people involved or affected by the incident—the boys, their parents, and the custodian. They talked about what happened, and everyone had a voice. “In that process, the custodian had a chance to let the students know how difficult it is to replace a dispenser,” said Claassen. “It gave the students incredible knowledge of a real-world situation in a way a suspension never could, and relationships improved instead of being damaged.”
One of the students couldn’t afford to pay to replace the dispenser. So, the student himself suggested that he could work with the custodian to pay his debt. He enjoyed it so much he continued to help the custodian long after he’d finished his restitution.
Here’s a great list with more examples of how restorative justice can lead to productive outcomes as an alternative to traditional school discipline.
Success stories: school-based restorative justice
For some schools, restorative justice has completely changed the face of school discipline. For example, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has measurably improved school safety thanks to its restorative justice program.
In California, Oakland Unified School District began using the program at a failing middle school in 2006. Within three years, the pilot school saw an 87 percent decrease in suspensions, with a corresponding decrease in violence. The practice was so successful that by 2011 OUSD made restorative justice the new model for handling disciplinary problems. [Source: We Are Teachers]
The program has a dedicated program manager and implementation guide.
How to bring restorative justice to your school
Are you interested in developing a restorative justice program for your school? Start here:
- Read OUSD’s implementation guide for inspiration, above
- Explore Edutopia’s resources for school-based restorative justice, including real-world examples from school districts around the US
- Hire school professionals with experience in restorative justice
About Teachers On Demand: As a teacher placement agency beloved by 200+ partners, we can help you hire and retain qualified classroom and non-classroom staff, plus provide backup support to your school with substitute educators and a substitute staffing platform.
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