Restorative Justice, What’s That?
Restorative Justice is a topic that continues to gain national attention as both elementary and secondary schools decide how to best deal with student behavioral and discipline issues that occur in today’s schools. The topic focuses on a mindset that aims to help students make restorations to address misconduct instead of resorting to punishing them. It also focuses on teaching and supporting students instead of pushing them away. Interestingly enough, restorative justice is not a mindset supported by all education stakeholders. In fact, some teachers who feel that restorative justice avoids providing discipline to students, remain opposed to this new movement.
Addressing the Problem
School administrators start their days with ambitions of visiting classrooms, completing paperwork, conducting meetings, and communicating with stakeholders. However the stark reality is that many school administrators are bombarded with school discipline issues before they even make it through the office door. They are then often forced to spend time making judgements about whether a student should be suspended or not. This can sometimes be a lengthy process, especially if a school administrator spends 30 minutes on an average office discipline referral. To complicate this process, they may learn that the offending student may currently be exposed to abuse, shows signs of depression, and has had to deal with lack of food or even homelessness earlier in the year. While the student is waiting for the school administrator to determine their fate, they are missing out on key instruction that they so desperately need and the school administrator is kept from accomplishing their own tasks. All of these issues combined paint a picture about school discipline that is not exactly black and white —- which is exactly why Restorative Justice is a better minds
#1. Restorative Justice Improves School Culture
Not only does Restorative Justice address the root of problematic behavior in schools but it also can improve a school’s culture. The opposite of a Restorative Justice program would be one that focuses on “zero tolerance.” A zero tolerance environment focuses on strict rules and even stricter punishments. When school environments are focused on these things, school discipline is largely ineffective. Relationships between students and school staff are often damaged and listening to one another is deemphasized. Because student motivation is a real concern by many educators in today’s schools, making sure that relationships are in good repair between staff and students becomes an essential indicator for school leaders to be concerned about. Students can feel whether their school environment and culture is supportive or not and that’s important because a student’s attitude about their school can impact their academic performance. This is exactly why the method of school-wide discipline must be taken seriously by education stakeholders.
#2. Restorative Justice Builds Healthy Relationships
Restorative Justice builds healthy relationships through a staple practice of conducting community focused circles where students can discuss personal struggles as well as issues that have occurred at school that need attention. This “talk-it-out” strategy focuses on helping students express their feelings and their emotions in a healthy way—something that should always be emphasized by teachers, counselors, and school administrators. School staff can guide these conversations by asking questions and helping students process negative events. It is here where students discover ways to solve problems in a healthy way and take responsibility for their actions. These skills will improve student-to-student relationships as well as student-to-teacher relationships which will ultimately positively impact student achievement.
#3. Restorative Justice Develops Understanding
Restorative justice helps school staff members to focus on understanding students first, which goes a long ways in building trust with the student body. As students develop these listening skills and strengthen their emotional intelligence, they are improving their future employability and the likelihood that they can successfully navigate a career and be a productive member of society. All students have extremely varied experiences at home, in their neighborhood, and at school. Their behavior in these environments is shaped by these experiences. When school staff focuses on gaining insight into each student by listening to their experiences, then stronger relationships are formed and the school staff can focus on addressing the root of the problem—not the negative behavior that ends up manifesting itself at school.
Conclusion: Restorative Justice Gets it Right
Although critics of Restorative Justice make claims that students avoid accountability for their actions in this type of environment, more students are kept in the right environment when Restorative Justice practices are utilized. Restorative Justice does not mean that students who break school rules and compromise the safety of others will not be disciplined, but it does mean that school discipline will not be viewed as a solution to the misbehavior. An educator’s job is not to avoid the problems that students come to school with, but to help fix them. Restorative Justice’s emphasis on teaching students to effectively deal with their problems by improving their listening skills and writing their wrongs continues to build within students a healthy set of skills that will aid them in school and in the future.
See how Restorative Justice also approaches Social Practice, here.