Real Restorative Justice in Schools

Restorative justice has become a major trend in public schools. It’s mostly used as a buzzword that has little relation to its practice in actual legal systems, but, for the most part, it’s colloquially used by teachers and administrators as a behavioral system that replaces punishments like detention and suspension for “restorative conversations” and conferences where students are pushed to think about how their actions impact the emotions of teachers and other students. “When you did … I feel …”

The model comes in a ton of different iterations. Very rarely do schools embrace restorative practices alone, most of the time it seems to be vaguely used to support a traditionally punitive behavioral system that actually relies on deterring student behaviors through demerits, detentions, and suspensions. I’m not saying this to in any way come off like these things have to be bad. I’m more concerned with which practices are effective in which situations. The problem is that the practice of “restorative justice” can often be so vague that it isn’t at all clear how the systems of different schools with restorative practices are related at all.

If you commit a crime in the US, the actual victim of the crime has little control over your actual punishment. Instead, the justice system takes over the entire proceedings and becomes the imagined harmed party. So in a situation where I rob someone at gunpoint, although the actual harmed party is the victim of the robbery, my criminal case will be framed as the “Tennessee/United States/The People vs. Corey” rather than what actually happened — “My victim vs. Me.”

The victim and their harm is taken out of the court, and my crime becomes a crime against a theoretical society. There are a lot of great reasons for why that is. Particularly, my crime can be seen as a disturbance to general social order and the impulsivity that led to my actions can be seen as a good measure of future harms to others that need to be prevented. So when the state takes my punishment from my victim, they can justify it by defending a general social order and preventing further harms to others. The problem is still the fact that my victim is still harmed and has no say in the punishment and will get no reparations to proportionally settle the harm.

The innovation of restorative justice (here is a great summary article) within the legal system is to create restorative mediation sessions that involve the victim in the punishment of the perpetrator. In these sessions, the victim expresses their hurt and then works with a mediator to create punishments for the perpetrator that balance out their own hurt. The victim’s harm becomes the center of the process and it is used both to measure out blame and to communicate the consequences of the perpetrators actions.

There are a lot of obvious benefits to this. First off, it maintains our intuitive understanding of the victim. Instead of having to do the mental gymnastics to justify how the state or “the people” are the victim of the robbery, we can center our punishments around who was directly harmed. On top of that, the punishment works to actually settle the harms for the victim which often doesn’t happen in typical legal proceedings. For instance, we could imagine an assault where a victim is hospitalized and left with thousands in medical bills. In the US, that victim could sue the assaulter in civil court to get financial compensation to balance out the harm, but that civil suit will be risky and expensive and, most importantly, it will be disconnected from the actual criminal punishments (jail time, fines paid to the state, etc.). Restorative justice allows us to wrap civil and criminal suits together in ways that both punish the perpetrator and balances out harm to the victims. So far, there is a lot of evidence that restorative practices can be much more effective than jail time in preventing recidivism. So victims are not only given direct and personal justice, perpetrators are also less likely to re-offend.

School behavior systems often work very similarly to legal systems. That might be a little disturbing but the similarity comes from just generally having people in power (the state and the school) who want to enforce certain behavioral expectations on people in the system (citizens and students). You have schools who amount to basically failed states where there is no actual rule of law within the school. Rules and norms are not enforced unless a student’s behavior is violent. You see this frequently in many traditional public schools where there is so little consistency across classes that students can get away with so many low-level misbehaviors because the enforcement of punishments is too inconsistent to influence student behavior long-term. And then, of course, you can have extremely structured and punitive systems that influence student behavior through rigorous use of demerits along with punishments like detentions and suspensions. This system often feels overly punitive and you can frequently see pushback from both teachers and students, but the structure’s positive impact on learning, safety, and student behavior is palpable.

On the other end of all of this is the restorative school. I am starting to see this more in charter school networks. It either comes in the form of a traditionally punitive system where restorative conversations are used to support detentions and demerits, or it comes in the form of a fully restorative school where attempts at these restorative conversations are used as the sole form of punishment.

My main concern is just whether most kids are developed enough to be responsive to the types of incentives employed by restorative justice. If a young student doesn’t care how they hurt someone, then there’s no way that this will be a real deterrence from hurting others in the future. In this way, it might be most productive to just use traditional punishments like detentions that are unpleasant enough to at least create a consistent negative repercussion to deter future misbehavior.

My other concern is that most of the schools using restorative practices are leaving out what I feel like is the most important aspect of restorative justice — reparations to the victims of the harm. Schools will talk in terms of feelings and the emotional cost of a student’s actions. They talk to students with a real respect for their personal dignity. That’s fantastic and important and should be the unquestioned norm. But that alone isn’t clearly enough. It might also be helpful to include a more intentional commitment to restoring harms to the victims of the misbehaviors of students. As unusual as it might sound this might also include some discussion of the inclusion of victims in deciding punishments.

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