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Restorative Justice in School Discipline

Jordan Catapano

 

What if your school stopped suspending students? What if instead of keeping problem students locked inside of a room for days on end or restricting them from coming to school at all, there was a different solution? And what if that different solution yielded better results in terms of resolving conflicts and preventing students from repeating the same offense?

This might sound too good to be true. Getting rid of suspensions might also sound like a school going “soft” on school discipline. But there is a well-researched and successfully applied method called “restorative justice” that has been helping educators entirely rethink the way they approach school discipline.

Here’s what restorative justice is and what it could do for your school discipline practices.

School Discipline: The Traditional Punitive Model

In your typical school hierarchy of discipline, poor student behavior earns progressively harsher penalties. Demerits, phone calls home, detentions, suspensions, expulsions – all are part of the tradition step system of school discipline.

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One detriment of such a system is that all kinds of behaviors receive the same punishment: A student who receives multiple tardies, for example, gets a detention in the same way a student who swears at a teacher might. The Civil Rights Project, a division of UCLA research, reports that 3.3 million K-12 students are suspended each year, and 102,000 are expelled. In many cases, these disciplinary measures could be avoided if other considerations were put in place. Yet many schools retain a narrow gamut of disciplinary options that fail to consider the full spectrum of components playing into the students’ actions.

In 2007, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that nearly one in every four students nationwide had been suspended at least once. Males, especially African-American and Hispanic minorities, faired much worse. In many situations, receiving a detention or suspension does not strongly deter similar behavior in the future, and students may easily repeat their folly or their peers may find themselves suffering these punitive measures.

So the old wisdom – that students “Get the consequence they deserve” for their behavior – carries limited weight. Punishment for the sake of consequence is only part of the disciplinary picture. If, however, we want punishment to be instructive and effective, then another path is necessary. It’s not necessary to entirely dismiss the classic discipline approach, but it may be necessary that it be rethought. And that’s where restorative justice comes in.

Restorative Justice vs. Traditional Discipline

Restorative justice is, according to alternativesyouth.org, an alternative approach to school discipline that emphasizes bringing together those who have caused and experienced harm and providing all parties with equal attention. It is an approach based more on talking and listening than on delivering consequences. Students can sit in safe small groups – often peer-mediated – and talk to one another, hear each others’ sides, ask questions, and voice concerns. Schools that have adopted this model report fewer suspensions and expulsions, and a generally increased feeling of safety among their students.

In a school that models its disciplinary approach after a restorative mentality, students are encouraged to see the reasons and results of their actions. The emphasis is often defusing situations before they become worse; or, if students have already had a fight, for example, all parties are encouraged to share their side, talk about their feelings, hear and understand one another, and make an agreement with one another on how to interact in the future.

A punitive model of discipline emphasizes that students have broken a school rule; restorative justice focuses on the harm the behavior has caused real individuals. Punitive focuses on guilt and blame; restorative justice emphasizes problem-solving and prevention. Punitive focuses on authoritarian response; restorative emphasizes listening and negotiation. Punitive absents the school community in the response; restorative includes the school community in the response.

Overall, a punitive discipline model seeks to punish students for past behaviors; a restorative justice model seeks to resolve current conflicts and promote future understanding.

The Effects of Restorative Justice on Student Behavior

The Illinois State Board of Education reported that from 1991-2007 Illinois schools saw a 56 percent increase in suspensions and expulsions. This timeframe hosted a zero-tolerance mentality, often punishing students for a variety of supposed crimes. On the other hand, schools across the world that have adopted restorative practices have witnessed a reversal of this trend. Some districts have cut their suspension and expulsion rates in half; others have enjoyed reduced reports of bullying and decreased instances of punitive measures being needed.

Ultimately, a restorative approach to discipline carves a pathway for students to follow. When punitive measures are taken, they have the odd effect of reinforcing the behavior by labeling and alienating the student. Restorative approaches give students a voice, a part in the community, and an ability to understand the breadth of their decisions. When a student paints graffiti on a school wall, the punitive impulse might be to suspend that student. The restorative approach would be get that student talking, have the student listen to peers who have had their school defaced and the custodian who has to spend time cleaning it; then they can be a part of the decision-making process for how that student must respond to his or her behavior.

Restorative justice gives students a chance to apologize, to understand their actions or potential actions from someone else’s viewpoint, and to make amends. This method – far more than punitive methods – helps to prevent future infractions. And, ultimately, they help the student become a better, more successful citizen.  

How it May Help You Re-Evaluate How Your School Does Discipline

Restorative justice is all about giving ownership of behavior to students, both in those who are harmed and those who do the harming. This, however, can be a scary approach if your student operates firmly on the punitive scale of discipline. Fortunately, your school does not have to jump immediately to a discipline overhaul; instead, you can transitional steadily toward a restorative philosophy, and you can build it off of your current system of discipline.

First, think of everyone in your school – students, teachers, administrators, custodians – as a community of individuals each sharing an equal part. Discipline doesn’t have to be an “Us vs. Them” adversarial mentality. Instead, students who do wrong are as much a part of the solution as they are the problem. Let the individuals know their roles and opportunities. Help your staff approach students with a restorative mentality whether working through classroom management or referring students to the discipline office. Help your students know that they have responsibility and a voice in their community, and they can contribute to a better future.

Second, think about how you’d like to implement restorative justice in your school. Some schools encourage classes to take a “Time out” from lessons and talk about the class, sharing concerns or conflicts in a safe environment. Other times, students are referred to a “Student jury” where select other peers help a student think through their behavior and resolution. Other times, students are trained as peer mediators who can work with conflicting students to agree on a resolution and move forward positively from a conflict. Talking circles, conferencing, and journaling might also play roles in the restorative justice system.

Finally, consider that implementing a system of restorative justice takes more time and training than a punitive system. It’s a long-term commitment with long-term results, and it takes a reasonable amount of time to change the culture of your school. Whether implementing the process in your whole school or just in your classroom, remember that restorative justice is all about separating the doer from the action, shaming the behavior but not the person, and restoring that person into his or her community in a way that mutual benefits everyone involved. As schools, we have the obligation to not just teach students about core subjects, but also to teach them how to approach the many conflicts they’ll doubtless encounter in their life.

What is your school’s approach to restorative justice? What are the impacts that a restorative justice mentality has had on your school? Tell us in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com.