Over the past two decades a number of school systems have sought to reduce suspensions by using alternative forms of discipline. The results have varied significantly, from extremely successful to totally ineffective. One oft-cited alternative form of discipline with promising results is Restorative Justice. One can gain insight into the mixed results of alternative discipline programs by looking closely at how Restorative Justice (RJ) has been defined and implemented.
I had the opportunity to study Restorative Justice for 4 days with Dr. Tom Cavanagh, one of the leading experts on Restorative Justice in the U.S. and a professor at the University of Colorado. His research and published articles have been highlighted by national news media. Dr. Cavanagh’s most in-depth work has been at the William C. Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colorado. This school was recently awarded the designation as a Silver School of Opportunity by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) for its “thoughtful and successful ‘culture of care’ and excellent restorative justice practices grounded in widely shared understandings among students and staff.”
Cavanagh stresses that not all students are good candidates for RJ. In his view, to be a good candidate for the program, a student must 1. admit that they have caused harm, 2. be willing to take action to restore the relationship with the person(s) that they have harmed, and 3. voluntarily agree to undertake the work.
Therefore, the traditional disciplinary system must remain in place as the alternative for those students who are not willing to admit that they have caused harm and do the work to restore the relationship. As such, RJ is not a “Get Out of Jail Free Card,” where the student is not held accountable for the harm they caused. Indeed, a student may face the typical disciplinary consequence AND have to take some type of action to restore the relationship with the person(s) harmed.
In some versions of RJ, there are consequences for behavior (e.g., a student who leaves a classroom in disarray might help the teacher clean it up). However, valid implementation of the model requires a mediation approach, and emphasizes that each party involved needs to own up to his or her responsibility and make amends. This is even the case for teachers, who are expected to admit how they have contributed to a conflict with a student.
A tenet of Restorative Justice is that the actions that cause harm should clearly be viewed in a negative light, but the person who causes harm should not be considered a “bad” person. Rather, the person is worthy of the effort to restore the relationship, so that they can continue to be a part of the community. In order for this to work, both teachers and students need to be trained in, and practice using, Restorative Justice. And preparing the staff and the school environment for Restorative Justice implementation is not a “short and sweet” proposition. Cavanagh’s work suggests it takes three years to fully implement this type of culture change at the high school level.
Interestingly, in schools where Restorative Justice does not lead to reduced suspensions and other positive outcomes, significant implementation differences are found. For example, in these schools student participation is required (i.e., it is not voluntary); staff development and preparation of teachers to implement the program is limited; and outreach efforts to “sell the program” to parents are modest.
What does Restorative Justice look like when it works? Two students get into a fight. Both students are suspended. During the suspension, the students sit down in a conference with a dean.
Mediation processes help students to 1) examine the behavior that led to the conflict, 2) own up to their actions, and 3) work-out their disagreement face to face. 
In schools where teachers have been trained in restorative practices and received follow-up coaching, student conflict decreased. Similarly, in California, alternatives to traditional discipline are defined as ones that hold students accountable for their conduct while keeping them in school.
The results? Students and teachers report feeling safer at school.
In summary, Restorative Justice can be a useful program for schools to deploy to reduce suspensions and to encourage personal accountability. However, implementation matters. As Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners in Washington, D.C. explains, “We have a proven track record in the American education system of taking things that are working, replicating them quickly and badly and consequently discrediting the otherwise good idea.” In order to implement Restorative Justice with fidelity, students and staff must be trained, community forums must be held to educate parents, and the program must be phased in gradually over several years.
Pam Dudoff is a Senior Staff Developer for the Program Evaluation and School Improvement Services Division at Measurement Incorporated.
Please learn more about our program evaluation and professional development services on this website.
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