Restorative Justice in Schools: Benefits and Complications

By June Naureckas, CEI Intern

Psychological researchers have recommended the integration of restorative justice into middle and high schools for decades. Recent attempts to do just that have been proven to reduce racial and class-based disparities in suspension rates. 

Tenets of Restorative Justice

Restorative justice was originally developed as a means of overhauling the criminal justice system. Core beliefs include that breaking the law harms both the victim and the community, and that wrongdoers have a responsibility to their victims and their community to take responsibility for the harm they have done.

According to Restorative Practices International, the practice of restorative justice can encompass:

  • Dialogue among victim, offender, the families of both parties, and/or community members
  • Focus on repairing the harm rather than on punishing the offender
  • Reintegration of wrongdoers into the community
  • Allowing affected parties to participate in the resolution of a conflict or harmful action

Objectives of Restorative Justice in Schools

Restorative justice has been discussed in the context of schools since the late 90’s and has actually been introduced to schools nationwide in the past decade. A 2000 article by Kay Pranis listed several potential benefits of restorative justice in school, including:

  • Fostering problem-solving skills and a sense of community
  • Treating young people with sympathy and respect in order to help them develop empathy
  • Reducing fear and mistrust between children and adults

As more schools have begun practicing restorative justice, programs have developed a more concrete, measurable goal: to reduce suspension and expulsion in schools, especially disproportionate suspension and expulsion of black children (Augustine et al., 2018)

How Well Does Restorative Justice Work in Schools?

A 2018 study by Catherine H. Augustine found that in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, suspension rates dropped more steeply at schools that practice restorative justice than at non-practicing schools. Disproportionate suspension of black students and students from low-income families has been reduced at practicing schools only (Augustine et al., 2018).

However, it can be difficult to incorporate these programs without disrupting academics. The Augustine study found that in Pittsburgh schools belonging to the Pursuing Equitable and Restorative Communities restorative justice program, test scores have dropped for students of all demographics in grades 6 through 8. (Augustine et al., 2018). Matt Barnum suggests in a 2019 Chalkbeat article on the that this drop may be due to these middle schools’ previous reliance on suspensions to maintain order in the classroom (Barnum, 2019).

What Improvements Are Still Needed?


Some teachers who participated in the Augustine study reported that they don’t have enough time in their 40 minute class periods to practice restorative justice and also get through their high volume of standardized course material (Augustine et al., 2018). Augustine et al. recommend that schools focus on restorative practices which can be integrated into the class period without taking time away from learning.

According to an article by Francisco Vara-Orta on Restorative Justice practices. Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, another concern is getting teachers the training and support they need. Some KIPP schools had four trained support staff for the restorative justice program in 2018, while others had none at all (Vara-Orta, 2018). A program has the best chance of succeeding if teachers understand restorative justice, agree with the program’s objectives, and don’t feel that their principal has thrown them into the deep end.

Now that restorative justice has met its own self-defined goal of reducing discriminatory suspensions, the next step is to maintain these benefits and reduce disruption to students’ education.  

References

Augustine, C. H., Engberg, J., Grimm, G., Lee, E., Wang, E. L., Christianson, K., & Joseph, A. A. (2018, December 27). Can restorative practices improve school climate and curb suspensions?: An evaluation of the impact of restorative practices in a mid-sized urban school district. Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation

Barnum, M. (2019, January 07). Major new study finds restorative justice led to safer schools, but hurt black students’ test scores. Chalkbeat website.

Pranis, K. (2000). Empathy development in youth through restorative practicesPsycEXTRA Dataset, 25(2). DOI:10.1037/e553302012-003

Restorative Practices International. (2018). What is restorative justice? Restorative Practices International website.

Vara-Orta, F. (2018, November 08). How restorative justice has rolled out at KIPP schools, one at a time. Chalkbeat website.

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