Restorative Practices: Building Accountability, Repairing Relationships and Creating Safer Schools

October 24 2016


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

We know that punitive approaches to behavior issues in schools do not produce the favorable outcomes we desire, and it’s no longer tolerable for school systems to function with discipline policies and social norms that allow and enable students to be mean, intolerant, thoughtless or indifferent to others. Furthermore, we know that in the aftermath of an incident of meanness or hurt, it’s human nature to want to be responded to in a way that helps us feel better, more connected and safe again.

Fortunately, over the last decade a variety of factors have coalesced and contributed to significant positive changes in how schools address discipline issues such as bullying, cyber-bullying, harassment and other mean-spirited behaviors. With pressure from the government, coupled with a recognition that suspensions are often meted out disproportionately to students of color and disability, and that they most often don’t result in improved behavior, schools are moving away from “zero-tolerance” policies and finding more effective approaches.

Punishing kids through suspensions simply causes them to miss critical days in school, and it effectively buffers them from taking responsibility for what they have done. This does little more than to put them behind in their classes and robs them of the opportunity to come back into integrity with their community by repairing the “damage” they’ve done to others, and to themselves.

Restorative Justice and Restorative Practices offer both a philosophy of discipline and a hands-on approach whose time has come. Restorative Practices teach social-emotional skills and help build a strong caring community that experiences fewer harmful acts of mistreatment. Restorative Justice moves schools away from punishing students for their harmful acts towards helping them correct their behavior, thus restoring a sense of community and well-being for all those who have been impacted, as well as for the school at large.

When using the tools of Restorative Practices, school administrators recognize that when a student makes a mistake, it’s a golden opportunity for learning --- a “teachable moment”. Along with that comes the understanding and acceptance that it’s developmentally appropriate for young people to make mistakes. When behaviors are misguided, thoughtless or even mean-spirited, these incidents become opportunities for learning rather than pathways to punishment. Times like these are ideal ways to practice and integrate the skills of empathy, accountability and reparation.

In a restorative conference, unlike traditional punitive approaches, the victim and the offender are brought together in a circle to share what they were both thinking and feeling at the time of the incident and what is needed to make amends. Through this process, the offender hears and learns about the impact their actions had on the victim, and the victim has a chance to express the emotions and needs that were created out of the wrongdoing. This process offers both parties the opportunity to hear and to be heard.  The offender is invited to face the person(s) they harmed, accept responsibility for their words or actions, and identify the steps that are needed make things right. This shift places the importance more on the learning opportunity than on the fact that they got into trouble, and on staying connected rather than separating them from the community.

Additionally, the role of adults is significantly different when utilizing Restorative Practices. In a punitive-based system, the role of the authority figure is to listen to both sides of the story, determine “guilt” or “innocence” and then dole out an appropriate punishment. Typically the student’s response can be one of resentment, alienation, and/or possibly an equally troublesome habit of fearing and submitting to authority.

However, in Restorative Practices the adult’s role is more of a coach or facilitator. In the initial inquiry the facilitator’s role is to help establish what happened and who was involved – those most directly impacted, those who caused the harm, those who may have witnessed the incident and other community members who were affected. The facilitator is the convener of the circle and the guide who helps the students explore facts, judgments, feelings, needs and ideas for how to makes things right again. Making this shift keeps the adults out of the typical judge and jury roles, and subsequently, helps build the students’ capacity to work things out for themselves – taking the locus of responsibility for the well-being of the community off the shoulders of the adults and placing it firmly where it belongs – on the community itself.

These changes in belief, attitude and approach don’t necessarily come easily. Building buy-in for Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice with key staff and stakeholders will go a long way to ensuring success. And, since the restorative approach has been shown to reduce re-offending by as much as 83%1, and 98% of victims in Restorative Justice programs are satisfied with the results2, we know it’s worth the effort to make the change to create safer schools and more responsible young adults.


     1National Institute of Justice and Recidivism: 2014.

     2Centinela Youth Services ‘Program Data’: 2016.

For more information on Restorative Practices and how Community Matters can assist your school or district in making the transition, click here.

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