Restorative justice in education – possibilities, but also concerns

The following is a guest blog post by our colleague in the EMU Education Department, Kathy Evans.

There is a great deal of momentum right now for implementing restorative justice in education. This makes me incredibly excited – and a bit nervous.

Kathy Evans

Let’s start with the good news! RJ is gaining lots of attention in education. Recently, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education came together to issue a colleague letter alerting schools that they can be cited for disproportionately disciplining students in certain categories. These federal agencies then recommended restorative justice as one way to address disproportionate discipline in schools!

Schools across the nation, from California to Virginia, are moving to replace their zero tolerance policies with restorative justice approaches. Every week, I get notices about school-based restorative justice programs popping up. That’s exciting! Closer to home, EMU has just begun the nation’s first graduate program specifically focusing on Restorative Justice in Education (RJE). It’s a great time to be an educator who is looking to implement RJ!

And it’s about time. More than thirty years of research have demonstrated that punitive school discipline systems don’t work. In most cases, they exacerbate discipline problems and contribute to unhealthy school cultures. The injustices caused by zero tolerance policies in schools are too many to name and have been researched and written about extensively.

For example, we know that punitive discipline policies are disproportionately applied to students identified as visible minorities, students with physical and academic disability labels, and other students who are marginalized because they don’t fit inside certain socially prescribed boxes. We know that students who are suspended and expelled are more likely to end up dropping out of school, being incarcerated, and/or facing unemployment.

So the opportunity to replace zero tolerance with restorative justice is exciting. But it also beckons us to be sure that in our haste to implement RJ in schools, we don’t lose our way. Not all programs that call themselves restorative are indeed restorative. Many are restorative-ish; others have been completely co-opted so that restorative justice terminology is used to rename the detrimental programs they are meant to replace.

For example, having kids wash the cafeteria tables in lieu of suspension may be a better option, but it isn’t necessarily restorative. Initiating a peer mediation program is fine, but let’s not assume that this program aligns with the values of restorative justice. Implementing restorative justice to address behavior without critically reflecting on how curriculum content or pedagogy perpetuates aggression is limiting.

I must confess that I get nervous when I hear about principals requiring their teachers to be trained in restorative justice. Where is the shared empowerment there? How much buy-in do those teachers have? Will they implement restorative practices in ways that align with restorative justice values? Does it make anyone else nervous that many of these teachers are only receiving minimal instruction in what those restorative values are?

The type of educational changes we are hoping for cannot be accomplished in a few hours or 3-day-long sessions. And yet, due to funding issues, lack of understanding of RJ, and an emphasis on standardization and accountability, three days of RJ training are about as much as most principals are willing and/or able to give up. In our haste to make sure teachers are “trained” in restorative justice, we must ensure that they aren’t just learning a new set of skills, procedures, or practices.

Restorative justice is as much an ethos as it is a set of tools in our tool belt. For example, beyond teaching educators how to facilitate a circle process, they need to understand the values that are inherent in a circle process: mutual respect for all the members of the circle, empathetic listening, and a shared empowerment to speak one’s truth. Beyond knowing how to “run a victim-offender conference”, it is crucial that teachers know enough about students’ needs to question, “Who is the victim?” In schools where violence is rampant, it is possible that all of the students involved have been victimized in some way, either by trauma, by systemic racism, or by schooling practices that oppress particular groups of students.

I hope that the momentum around RJE continues and that the tide of discipline turns abruptly away from punitive measures to more restorative measures. AND I hope that we continue to ensure that the roots of restorative justice run deep. I hope that we will teach restorative values, not just practices. I hope that we remember that “using” restorative justice to address discipline issues is only a small part of the intent of restorative justice.

At its heart, restorative justice in education is first and foremost about building relationships that are healthy and establishing learning communities that are just and equitable for all students. To do that, we’ll need to be especially critical of, and alert to, the ways we currently live that have allowed us to implement exclusionary practices in the first place. The possibility of restorative justice to affect positive changes in school culture is great. Let’s make sure that we maintain the core values of RJE lest we blindly perpetuate the very things we are trying to eliminate.

Here is a short interview with Kathy on our local TV station.

Kathy Evans is Assistant Professor of Education at EMU, teaching courses in special education and educational theory. With a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Research from The University of Tennessee in Knoxville, her research, teaching, and scholarship focus on ways in which teachers participate in creating more just and equitable educational opportunities for all students, including those with disability labels, those who exhibit challenging behavior, and those who are marginalized for a variety of reasons. She has published several articles and book chapters related to zero tolerance policies, restorative justice, and school discipline practices, focusing on the ways in which restorative justice is applied to educational contexts.