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Restorative Justice

<e 1973, the number of students suspended annually in the United States has more than doubled to 3.3 million students. This rise is due to the introduction of zero-tolerance policies in schools. A zero-tolerance approach to discipline mandates suspension or expulsion of students from school for a wide variety of misbehaviors including fighting, dress code violations and cursing. Proponents claim that this approach will deter other students from misbehaving, thereby improving the learning environment for well-behaved students. However, no research has found that suspending students for “mundane and non-violent misbehavior improves school safety or student behavior.” Instead, zero-tolerance policies have disproportionately referred students of color to the juvenile and adult criminal systems, creating a phenomenon that has been termed the school-to-prison pipeline. Black students are 2.6 times as likely to be suspended as White students, yet there is no indication that the higher rates of suspensions for students of color are due to higher rates of misbehavior; youth of color tend to be disciplined more frequently and severely for more subjective offenses such as “defiance of authority” or “disrespect.” Suspensions and expulsions have been shown to reduce students’ opportunity to learn, increase risk for incarceration, and diminish lifetime opportunities.

Suspensions and expulsions assign blame, and thus are an example of retributive policies. Such policies become a problem when the primary focus is on the rule violation. The purpose of establishing rules is to provide a safe, just and orderly community, and policies that quickly deliver suspensions to students counteract this purpose. Retributive policies also ignore or minimize the “human violation.”

Restorative justice is an innovate approach to school discipline that puts repairing harm done to relationships and people above the need for assigning blame. It is an alternative to retributive zero-tolerance policies, and can be used to combat the school-to-prison pipeline and/or to develop empathy in students. Restorative justice uses mediation in which both or all sides of a dispute are invited to explain what happened from their perspective and to express how they are currently feeling about the incident. This mediation often takes place in small group conferences or healing circles. Restorative justice is rooted in a philosophy that also recognizes offenders as having been affected. That is why all parties are invited to help collectively determine an “acceptable way forward.” These interventions are voluntary, but in this context ‘putting things right’ means addressing the needs of as many people involved as possible.

The few American school districts that have implemented restorative practices have reported positive results. Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, an organization pushing for school discipline reform, was recently profiled in a riveting article by Fania Davis in Yes! Magazine, entitled “Discipline With Dignity.” Davis aptly links Nelson Mandela’s adage, “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends” to the “profoundly inclusive nature” of restorative justice. A UC Berkeley Law study found RJOY’s 2007 middle school pilot eliminated violence and expulsions, while reducing school suspension rates by 87 percent.

At Humanities Preparatory Academy in New York City, students take other students to the Fairness Committee––a circle mediation based on the principles of restorative justice. In addition to wrongdoing, the fairness committee deals with community concerns. For example, one student took his best friend to fairness because he worried that he had been missing too much school and that he would not graduate. This led to a valuable discussion about the struggling student, and the committee was able to monitor his attendance in a supportive manner. In this case, students help keep school safe and keep their fellow students out of the juvenile discipline system.

Restorative justice can also develop relational skills such as explicitly valuing others; acknowledging and appreciating diversity; constructively challenging oppression and prejudice; and connecting across differences. At Cole Middle School (Oakland), circles sometimes revealed issues created by the racial and ethnic diversity of the school. For instance, one student only fought with students from a specific ethnic background. In another case, two African American eighth-grade students in a U.S. history class called for a circle with their teacher and other staff members about how painful it had been for them to be taught a section on American slavery by a White teacher. These tensions were explored through restorative practices, in which all participants practiced having difficult conversations and actively listening in a non-judgmental way. Restorative justice can help students and teachers better understand each other’s behavior, thereby creating a more tolerant school and citizenry.

After schools develop a strong restorative culture, some may empower students to act as mediators for peers and younger students. In Oakland, twenty-five students took an elective restorative justice class, and about eight students participated in an elective group that learned how to lead circles. These latter students volunteered at a nearby elementary school to help the students with conflicts during lunch and recess.

Restorative justice policies may attract resistance from school personnel accustomed to more authoritarian relationships between teachers and students. In some American schools, students often challenge teachers by ‘talking back,’ violating dress code or ignoring directions. Teachers then respond rapidly to what they perceive to be challenges to their authority. In a restorative model, teachers still possess authority in their classrooms. But in the circle, teachers and students are seen as having equally valid perspectives and claims to authority. This tension can cause anxiety among both teachers and students. One teacher at Cole Middle School was wary of restorative justice because “it looks like you’re opening the door for every decision a teacher makes to be questioned by a child, and the teachers having to explain, constantly, the ‘methods to their madness’ to children. And I thought that was a bit problematic.” Restorative justice cannot facilitate a caring and safe school environment unless teachers become comfortable with its new norms of authority.

In the Carleton Educational Studies Department, students are asked to critically examine such norms within the United States educational system. For this year’s senior concentrators, the topic of their senior seminar is youth activism, and a group of three students have created a blog, open to the public, as a place for self-education and honest discussion about restorative justice practices in schools (both at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary). Dylan Holck, Aly Wisekal, and Maribel Zagal have begun and will continue to post current events in the restorative justice realm, and encourage fellow Carleton students to share their experiences with zero-tolerance policies, restorative justice, or movements they may be aware of that are working to change the retributive policies so often in place in our schools. They hope to eventually gain support from within and outside of the Carleton community, and to build a bridge between Carls and larger networks of activist groups.

As products of the educational system, Holck, Wisekal, and Zagal believe restorative justice as a disciplinary practice instills respect, rather than fear, within educational communities, and if employed, may begin to change the course of the school-to-prison pipeline that is so evident today. If you have any thoughts on these matters, please peruse their blog,, and join the discussion on what can be done to change the contemporary norm.

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