What’s ‘Restorative Justice’
How should schools respond to behavioral infractions? What needs to happen when there is defiance, aggression or other destructive behavior? How is justice viewed and applied?
In 2014, The New York State Office of the Attorney General reported that the Syracuse City School District had failed to afford students adequate legally required appeals. The attorney general also found SCSD had demonstrated bias against disabled students and students of color in discipline processes.
The state attorney general and the school district came to an agreement to ensure fair and appropriate disciplinary practices. The goal was to reduce the use of school suspensions through preventative and positive behavioral interventions, as well as ensure students’ due process rights in the event of suspensions.
A new code of conduct was developed that outlined expectations for student behavior and consequences for violations.
Unfortunately, the rollout of the new system was flawed. With its adoption, there has been a decrease in the number of suspensions as a result in the change of the approval process for discipline. However, the reduction in suspensions was not related to improved behavior. In fact, there has been an overall deterioration of school climate. Similar issues were seen in other school districts, such as in California, which implemented comparable procedures without a clear vision and the resources required for success. Students were kept in the buildings but there was not meaningful change or increase in supportive approaches.
School districts across the country are looking towards the practice of restorative justice as a model to end the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Numerous reports have found that African-American students across the country are more likely to be suspended from school. Decades of evidence show that the suspension and expulsion of students does little to change negative behavior. Instead, it tends to shut students out of school, which can lead to a cycle of futility: falling behind in the classroom, ultimately dropping out, lack of employment opportunities—all elevating the risk of crime and incarceration.
So districts nationwide are moving away from zero-tolerance discipline policies and, through restorative practices, are looking to strengthen safe and supportive schools, address conflict, improve school climate, and build a positive school culture that students feel connected to.
For the past year, Syracuse city schools have begun to implement restorative practices.
What does that mean? Restorative justice is a cultural shift based on respect, responsibility, relationship building and relationship repairing. It aims to keep kids in school and to create a safe environment where learning can flourish.
Restorative practices focus on repairing harm and creating a safe space for open communication, relationship building, healing and understanding. Restorative justice can offer a chance to those affected by conflict to be part of finding solutions that meet their needs and promote community safety and well-being. It can help students develop skills needed to manage their own behaviors, treat others with respect and solve their own problems.
Restorative justice helps students resolve conflicts on their own and in small groups. The idea is to bring students together in peer-mediated small groups to talk, ask questions and resolve any conflicts.
It’s really all about relationships—building and repairing them. We should be responding to a student’s social-emotional and behavioral struggles the same way we do to academic concerns. We need to sit down beside them and help them get it right—not isolate them.
Many schools are using a three-tiered approach: prevention, intervention and supported re-entry. The first tier is all about community building as a preventive measure, such as frequent classroom circles. The circles are based on Native American practices that value inclusiveness, dealing with concerns as a community, and healing.
Skills that are developed during these proactive circles include respect, equality, empathy and emotional literacy, problem solving, responsibility, self-regulation and self-awareness, and shared leadership. This helps create a foundation on which restorative practice can thrive. It gives all students a voice and the opportunity to share their insights.
The second tier is intervention, such as restorative chats, in which teachers use restorative discipline practices to discuss and mend the harm that was done. When a student misbehaves, the offending student is given the opportunity to come forward and make things right. He or she will sit in a circle and work together with the teacher and the affected individuals. To facilitate the process, the teacher or support staff asks non-judgmental and restorative questions like, Is everything OK? What happened? How did it happen? What were you thinking then? How do you feel about it now? Who did your actions hurt? What can we do to make it right?
Through their discussions, participants in the circle all gain a better understanding of what happened, why it happened, and what can be done to repair the harm. Students will have a central role in developing and carrying out a plan to repair any harm. And the efforts help strengthen the relationships of those involved.
When a student is suspended, a restorative circle can be used to eventually help him or her rejoin the classroom community and get a clean state.
What are the potential benefits? Using restorative practices keeps students in school. Everyone works together to keep them in the classroom where they can learn. When you get kids talking, you learn about the traumas they may have faced. And just getting kids to talk about what they did and why they did it is a more constructive way to teach students how to resolve conflict without aggression or further harm.
Teachers who use restorative practices have an opportunity for better relationships with their students and therefore less stress from unresolved conflicts. There is less time wasted on discipline and more time available for teaching and interaction.
Students aren’t afraid to admit when they’ve done something wrong and are more likely to accept responsibility.
There are a number of challenges with the implementation of restorative justice practices, and it requires time for meaningful shifts in school culture to take hold.
Syracuse city schools are in the early phases of weaving these practices into the fabric of the educational environment. The resources and time need to be available. All levels of district staff, including administrators, need adequate training in order to have a solid understanding of the restorative practices. Parents, family and community also need to be included and active participants. We need to balance the rights of students who have social-emotional and behavioral struggles with the rights of all students to have classrooms that are safe.
Michael Gilbert, Psy.D., is a school psychologist with the Syracuse City School District and founder of the non-profit It’s About Childhood & Family, Inc. He has worked in a variety of settings with children and families for the past 25 years. He lives with his wife and two daughters in DeWitt.