When Scott Meyers became principal of St. Louis Park High School in Minneapolis three years ago, a high priority was to reduce the school’s suspension rates, especially for students of color. But doing so required a major shift in the school’s disciplinary practices. “Rather than sending students home for insubordination or disruptive behavior,” says Meyers, “we built relationships with them — starting with conversations about why we have certain policies and the consequences of their actions.”

In these conversations, referred to at the school as “mediated discussions,” students who have been involved in altercations meet with school officials and a student advocate to “talk about what happened and what they need to do to move forward.” As Meyers explains, “Adolescents in conflict are seldom given the time, space, or encouragement to talk to each other and work toward a resolution. As a result, problem behavior can become repetitive.”

A mediated discussion is one of the practices endorsed by proponents of restorative justice, an approach used in a growing number of schools to address offending behavior by focusing on repairing harm and restoring relationships, rather than just punishing the perpetrator. Restorative justice is also the focus of a series of reports authored by the WestEd Justice and Prevention Research Center, through funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

According to Sarah Guckenburg, a senior research associate at WestEd, the reports grew out of increasing interest among educators to reduce reliance on exclusionary disciplinary actions such as expulsion and suspension, which studies have shown increase students’ likelihood of dropping out of school and becoming involved in the criminal justice system. Research has also indicated that a disproportionate number of minority students are suspended from school, contributing to what many call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

In light of these pressing education and social justice issues, explains Guckenburg, the project was a timely way to “examine why more and more schools were exploring restorative justice, what the research behind it had to say, and how, exactly, it is being practiced in school settings.”

WestEd’s project included a review of the research and literature on restorative justice. Additional reports summarized findings from interviews with experts in the field, as well as findings from surveys and interviews of practitioners working in or with schools on restorative justice practices. “The experts we interviewed widely agree that current methods of handling student offenses are often not effective, and may even be backfiring,” notes WestEd’s Interviews with Experts report. “Several experts noted the history and success of [the restorative justice] approach in community and justice settings, and expressed hope for a similar impact on student disciplinary methods in U.S. schools.”

Replacing suspensions with conversations

At St. Louis Park High School, just one year after putting a restorative justice approach in place, suspension rates decreased by about 50 percent; the following year, the suspension rate was cut in half again. Though Meyers says he’s looking for even more improvement, he notes that the restorative justice philosophy is making a difference, particularly when it comes to “understanding what we need to do to ensure that students are out of class as little as possible.” In part, those changes included redefining “insubordination” and “disruptive behavior” — particularly in the classroom — in the wake of a series of staff–student conversations. One outcome: it is no longer against the rules for students to wear hats during the school day. “We looked at where that rule was coming from and asked ourselves, ‘Is this truly crucial to the instruction process?’” says Meyers.

“Rather than sending students home for insubordination or disruptive behavior, we built relationships with them.”

Within school settings, restorative justice can take a variety of forms, but, according to WestEd’s research review, it can “be best characterized as a non-punitive approach to handling a wide range of conflict.” Key features include an emphasis on repairing harm rather than punishing offenders; listening to the student point of view; and employing strategies that build students’ communication, social, and emotional skills. Restorative justice is seen by many as a repudiation of the “zero-tolerance” approach that requires exclusionary punishments such as suspensions and expulsions — an approach initially adopted to curb drug and weapon possession, but increasingly used to curtail less serious offenses. WestEd’s research review notes that proponents of restorative justice “argue that the traditional approach manages student behavior rather than developing students’ capacity and facilitating their growth. It also establishes a power dynamic between teachers and students that is detrimental to all students’ having a voice and feeling empowered.”

Some of the most common strategies being used in schools that are implementing restorative justice practices include the following:

  • Restorative circles. Facilitated meetings in which a group of students and a teacher come together to solve problems and resolve disciplinary issues.
  • Victim–offender mediation conferences. Meetings in which an offender and victim(s) discuss an altercation and identify ways to repair the harm that was caused.
  • Restorative questioning. A technique used to diffuse problematic situations before they can escalate into full-blown crises.

Both the experts and practitioners indicated that these sorts of practices have often led to improved teacher–student relations and a subsequent decrease in teacher-issued disciplinary referrals. Said one practitioner, “Students report feeling more connected to their school and their classes.” While some educators perceive the restorative justice approach as being “too soft” on student offenders, restorative justice experts point out that accountability plays an integral role in the process. Rather than excluding the offending student from the school setting, restorative justice strategies aim to help the involved parties determine reasonable “restorative sanctions” for the offender, such as community service, restitution, apologies, or specific behavioral change agreements.

Guckenburg notes that WestEd’s work also revealed the use of restorative justice practices in ways that were not directly related to discipline. For instance, at some schools, faculty meetings were being conducted in circles. “Using that setup with faculty makes sense for schools that believe in the model,” says Guckenburg. “It’s a good example of practicing what you preach.” Another finding: classroom teachers were using elements of restorative justice to teach subject-matter lessons. Guckenburg speculates that in such cases teachers likely were using practices to change the dynamics of large-group classroom discussions, resulting in wider student participation and heightened respect for each other’s contributions.

Focusing on social justice

Restorative justice practices are also seen as a promising way to reduce the disproportionate rate at which minority students are suspended and expelled. A 2011 study identified in the WestEd research summary, for instance, found that African American students were 26 percent more likely to receive out-of-school suspension for their first offense than White students. What’s more, although minority students may not be committing more serious offenses, they are more likely to be suspended for “vaguely defined offenses such as ‘disrespect,’ ‘willful defiance,’ and ‘disruption.’”

Oscar Reed, a former Minnesota Vikings running back and popular motivational speaker, is St. Louis Park High’s student advocate and multicultural liaison. Much of Reed’s early work at the school focused on helping students and staff work through racial issues related to school desegregation. Meyers notes that, for the last several years, Reed has been convening circles for students of Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and Eastern African heritage. “Oscar’s work has helped us learn to pause, listen, and give students an opportunity to speak,” says Meyers.

Reed says that after taking part in a circle ceremony on a Lakota Indian reservation many years ago, he started using the practice regularly with students. “Circles are all about forming relationships,” says Reed. “You’re all facing each other, and everyone is equal. They’re an effective way to collectively solve problems and defuse controversy.”

Implementing a restorative justice approach: Challenges and strategies

While restorative justice offers a promising alternative to traditional school disciplinary systems, there are considerable implementation challenges. Barriers reported by the experts and practitioners include finding the time and financial resources needed to train teachers, carving out time during the school day to engage in strategies such as restorative circles, and, over time, securing the support of a large number of school staff in order to sustain implementation. Some researchers suggest that a shift in attitude about punishment can take one to three years, and the deep shift to a restorative-oriented school climate may take up to three to five years.

According to Guckenburg, because the use of restorative justice in schools is “fairly new,” more research is needed to determine what kind of staffing, level of commitment, and structural changes are needed to implement school-based restorative justice programs. While the research is still evolving, says Guckenburg, there are several randomized controlled studies under way that should provide useful data about the effectiveness of restorative justice in schools.

Meanwhile, how best can school or district leaders interested in using restorative justice practices proceed? For a start, Guckenburg recommends reading WestEd’s reports — available for free online — to learn about practical and strategic issues to consider when implementing such a program. For instance, the research review shares ways in which schools and districts have allocated funds to support restorative justice implementation, including leveraging Title I funds to hire a full-time coordinator and pooling resources with community partners to fund staff training. In addition, the interviews with experts suggest that a restorative justice approach is most likely to be effective and sustainable if it is integrated across the entire school and district rather than positioned as an “add-on” program.

While implementing restorative justice practices takes time and investment, educators such as Oscar Reed are finding them fruitful. “Strategies like restorative circles are very powerful,” says Reed. “They create a safe environment in which students and teachers can share and connect with each other on pressing issues. Eventually, that kind of connection can change the culture of the whole school.”