Restorative Justice (RJ):
The intent of the FAQ is to introduce you to this strategy and serve as a starting point for further investigation.
- What is Restorative Justice?
- What needs can Restorative Justice address?
- What are the goals and primary student outcomes of Restorative Justice?
- What are my first steps for implementation?
- What structures need to be in place for a successful implementation?
- What should I keep an eye on to help ensure an effective implementation?
- How do I help my staff implement Restorative Justice effectively?
- What does research say about Restorative Justice?
- What is an example of an effective implementation?
Restorative Justice (RJ) is an approach to addressing conflict and misconduct that focuses on healing rather than punishment. RJ assumes that misconduct and conflict injure those directly involved (victims and offenders) as well as the broader community to which they belong. Rather than relying on punishment, RJ expects those who cause injuries to make things right with those they have harmed and with their community (Zehr, 2002; Umbreit, 2011). Its foundational principles of respect, accountability, healing, and empathy speak to fundamental human values, ethics, and practices common in ancient cultures from First Nations (Canada) to Maori (New Zealand) (Pranis, 2005; Umbreit, 2011).
In Western societies, RJ emerged in the 1970s in criminal justice settings and was quickly adapted to educational settings. Its emphasis on respect and accountability to others help educators address misconduct productively while building empathy and life skills in their students and improving school climate (Stutzman Amstutz, 2005). Over the last decade, RJ use has spread dramatically world-wide and is validated by numerous studies (NAN, CITE: IRRP, USDOE OFFICE OF CIVIL RIGHTS, ETC.).
When examining the concern around graduation rates, research reveals that zero tolerance policies in schools contribute to high rates of suspension, especially for minority populations. Studies show that when students are repeatedly suspended, they are at substantially greater risk of leaving school altogether (American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, 2009, p. 23; Advancement Project, 2010; US DOE, Office of Civil Rights, 2014).
In a school setting, RJ tools such as restorative conferences and circles can help resolve discipline problems from school violence and bullying to other behavior issues. The RJ values of respect, accountability, and community-building help educators create cohesive, supportive school environments that foster students' academic and social skill development (National Center Brief, 2009, p.1; Costello, 2009; Atlantic Charities, et al, 2014). It can also boost students' long-term success by keeping them in school and engaged in learning.
Restorative Justice can turn the discipline process into a learning opportunity and help build strong, lasting relationships between students, school staff, families, and members of the community. Rather than suspension or expulsion, which can negatively affect students' learning, RJ keeps students in the educational setting, holding them responsible as members of their school community. Engaging in respectful discussion designed to explore what happened to create the harm, who has been affected and how and what is needed to heal the harm, students learn the impact of their actions and help decide how to make things right with the victim and any others affected. Students who participate in this process are more likely to gain positive attitudes toward authority and to the concepts of fairness and justice (National Center Brief, 2009, p. 5-6).
Restorative Justice is not a program. It is a philosophy and approach which engages all affected parties in resolving conflict and addressing harm caused by misconduct. Everyone affected by the misconduct comes together and determines the best way to resolve the negative situation. An authority figure does not make the decision. This can be challenging for school administrators and educators who get paid to have the answers and provide quick fixes. True RJ, however, relies on school leadership choosing opportunities for healing instead of punishment.
While schools may implement RJ in varying degrees, from a single program to a school-wide approach, studies indicate clearer benefits from comprehensive, system-wide approaches with strong administrative buy-in. Districts, schools, and educators can implement RJ on a variety of levels, including daily practices such as school-wide check-in circles, informal classroom applications to address misconduct, and more formal practices such as restorative circles and conferences.
First steps for implementation include:
- Assessing whether the restorative justice philosophy will work for your learning community and if leadership can shift paradigms from punishment to healing the harm
- Considering whether to implement one or all components of restorative justice
- Obtaining staff buy-in
- Identifying a core staff/team to ensure fidelity in implementation
- Training staff on RJ in schools
- Establishing a method for data collection (i.e. school discipline referrals)
Administrative support is necessary for successful implementation of RJ. Having qualified, well-trained staff is also important. Use a regular method to check-in with staff about how the implementation process is going. Be prepared to collect data on discipline referrals as well as suspensions and expulsions.
Recommendations for implementation and sustainability of restorative justice in schools include:
- Offering professional development in RJ philosophy and practices for all staff including those in non- teaching roles
- Developing and maintaining a cohort of highly-skilled facilitators
- Using restorative processes to deal with incidents of inappropriate behavior and high-level conflict
- Supporting the RJ philosophy and practice through teacher education and support
- Developing school policies that include RJ (Ashley and Burke, 2009, p. 16)
Effective implementation takes time. Support staff efforts by prioritizing time for using RJ. Allow time on staff meeting agendas to discuss successes and challenges with implementing RJ. Encourage professional development for gaining and strengthening skills in RJ.
Research has shown Restorative Justice improves the school environment, enhances the learning and development of young people, and promotes safety, inclusion, respect, and positive relationships (Ashley & Burke, 2009, p. 18). Research also shows that schools who implement RJ programs see a lowered reliance on detention and suspension; a decline in disciplinary problems, truancy, and dropout rates; and an improvement in school climate and student attitudes (Graves & Mirsky, 2007).
A study of 19 schools in the United Kingdom found restorative practices improved the school environment and enhanced the learning and development of young people. A study of 18 Scottish schools concluded that restorative practices offer a strong cohesive framework, allow students to feel safe and respected, and have positive relationships with others. Three schools in Pennsylvania experienced reductions in disruptive behavior and disciplinary actions after implementing restorative practices.
At Cole Middle School, a pilot site for RJ in Oakland, California, restorative practices began in the 2005/06 school year. Significant benefits in terms of quantifiable data were noticeable between the 2006/07 and 2007/08 school years when the suspension rate at the school dropped. The school had been suspending almost one third of the student population (30.3%). Following initial implementation of RJ, students suspended dropped to 10.3%.
Research suggests that restorative circles are most effective when utilized throughout the school building and environment, becoming a part of the overall culture. Ashley and Burke (2009) emphasize that, "Real change is made through systemic adoption of RJ. A whole school approach is the best way to provide RJ, with the entire school community using restorative practices in its daily work" (p. 18).
The level of fidelity to RJ principles and practices correlates with the degree to which school staff and administration buy-in to the process. Sumner, Silverman and Frampton (2010) point out that "Uneven support among adults can negatively affect student perceptions of the value of school-based restorative justice" (Sumner, M., Silverman, C., & Frampton, M., 2010, p. 23).
Along these same lines, the Monroe Restorative Survey asked staff members what they were most concerned about in the school. A common answer was the difficulty in maintaining restorative practices while having contradictory practices within the school. Some staff members cited that administrators punished students differently, therefore some of the work of the circles would have been undermined (Isaac, 2011, p. 47).
Implementing RJ in the school setting often looks different from school to school. There are a number of implementation guides available, including:
- U.S. Dept. of Education;s Office of Civil Rights Dear Colleague Letter on How to Administer School Discipline without Discriminating
- Minnesota Dept. of Education website
This site has a wealth of resources including Restorative Interventions Implementation Tool Kit which includes measures for School RJ readiness to post-circle evaluations and school climate surveys, and Restorative School Community Building Practices which offers suggestions for circles and other tools for building a sense of community as part of adopting a restorative philosophy school-wide.
- The Safer, Saner Schools Program
International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) has pioneered RJ in a variety of settings, especially K-12 schools. Their Safer, Saner Schools program has a variety of school-related RJP resources both for free and for purchase.
- Implementing restorative justice: A guide for schools
This guide is specifically designed to provide Illinois school personnel with practical strategies to apply RJ. A variety of juvenile justice practitioners and school personnel provided guidance during the development of this guide to make it applicable for those working in elementary and secondary schools.
- Restorative Justice: A Working Guide for our Schools
This guide provides support and guidance for teachers, health workers, community leaders, and school personnel who seek to implement RJ in their schools and to shed light on its implementation. This publication was produced by the School Health Services (SHS) Coalition, a division of Alameda County Health Care Services Agency (HCSA).