Now Is the Time for Restorative Justice

February 12 2014


  • William Grace Frost, Former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters
    William Grace Frost
    Former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters
  • Rick Phillips, Founder, Community Matters
    Rick Phillips
    Founder, Community Matters

Despite the best efforts of our nation’s schools, bullying, harassment, hazing, and cyber-bullying are persistent and pervasive issues that impact far too many students. These issues compromise both teaching and learning, negatively affect children’s social and emotional development, take excessive staff and administrative time, and cause many school districts to fall short of achieving the educational outcomes they are charged to reach.

In the new Guiding Principles for Improving School Climate and Discipline report, U.S Department of Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, describes the issue this way:

"Effective teaching and learning cannot take place unless students feel safe at school. Positive discipline policies can help create safer learning environments without relying heavily on suspensions and expulsions. Schools also must understand their civil rights obligations and avoid unfair disciplinary practices. We need to keep students in class where they can learn.”

So what can be done to protect our children, staff and communities from the threats of bullying and violence and to help them feel safe at school? Some feel that the solution comes in the form of increased security, what we call the “outside-in approach”. This approach places primary importance on measures like those Secretary Duncan was referring to: security personnel, cameras, metal detectors and zero tolerance rules and policies that can be characterized by the catchphrase “catch and punish”.

Instead, we believe, and research supports that safety is achieved when there is a balance of school security with positive school climate. Beyond keeping the perimeter secure, schools need to cultivate a positive climate on the inside, where the focus is on strengthening positive relationships - the relationships among and between students and staff, as well as administration and families. In this model, schools use formative and restorative policies to address discipline issues and young people are empowered to be part of the problem-solving and decision-making process. We call this the “inside-out approach” which can be characterized as “connect and correct”.

Catch and Punish:  Imagine this very common daily school scene: a steady stream of students lined up outside the administrator’s office; each one waiting his or her turn to be disciplined for some infraction or mis-guided behavior; sitting there, very possibly feeling angry, scared, shameful, victimized or belligerent, all the while silently rehearsing a “he said – she said” defense story or perhaps plotting revenge on the person who ratted them out. All across America, the most likely resulting discipline in this scenario will be a suspension from school of anywhere from one to five days, and according to research, resulting in a potential increase in negative self-esteem, a loss of learning opportunities and a high likelihood of recidivism which also fuels the “schools-to-prison” pipeline.

Connect and Correct: Now imagine the alternative scene that begins with a circle instead of a line; a circle of all the people, peers and adults, who were affected by the student’s misbehavior; all participants facing one another, each being allowed time and space for their voice to be heard and honored. A mutually-accepted set of skills and processes is being used to seek full and direct accountability from the perpetrator(s); helping those who feel offended to recover what was hurt or taken from them; the results being opportunities for reparation and restitution. When the offending person has met the requirements of their obligation, they are taking responsibility for their actions and beginning to build self-esteem, and to realize and honor their connectedness with their community. This is Restorative Justice.

Restorative Justice is both a philosophy of discipline, and an approach, whose time has come. Restorative Justice moves away from punishment toward restoring a sense of harmony and well-being for all those affected by a hurtful act. The restorative approach can be challenging at first since it defies deeply-held notions about power and control and the urge to punish a student for having misbehaved.

Restorative Justice is a system where the goals are taking responsibility and repairing harm instead of punishment and retribution. Punitive responses to disciplinary incidents can cause more harm than good, create resentments and do little to repair relationships. They can also damage the self-esteem of the ‘wrong-doer’ leaving them feeling alienated, often resulting in withdrawal or retribution.

Restorative Justice is based on a view of resilience in children and youth and their capability to solve problems, as opposed to the youth themselves being considered the problems that adults must fix. Restorative Justice Practices can give students a chance to tell their side of the story, to understand and empathize with the person who was wronged, to reflect on and learn from their mistakes, to develop new self-regulation tools to prevent incidents from happening again in the future and to move on and feel better about themselves.

Restorative Justice Practices may not completely eliminate suspensions but research shows that suspensions are reduced significantly.

A few examples of restorative practices that schools are using successfully are:

  • Restorative circles;
  • Mediation;
  • Peer / Teen courts;
  • Community service projects;
  • Researching and writing a paper on restorative justice; and,
  • Peer mentoring.

For a list of resources and to learn more about how to implement Restorative Justice practices at your school, visit our Tools and Resources page or call us at 707-823-6159.

We also like Edutopia’s comprehensive website:

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