Foundations of Restorative Justice

by Abigail Levine

What is Restorative Justice?

Restorative justice takes a holistic approach to wrongdoings as it looks beyond the offense itself. It concentrates on the impact of the actions and strives to improve relations among victims, offenders, and their communities.  

The approach balances accountability with a safe space for the victim to share their experience and its impact. It considers the underlying issues and the factors that led to the offense while teaching students the effects of their actions. Their community is then given the opportunity to develop an appropriate stance and help the wrongdoer correct their mistake. 

Restorative justice has been proven as an effective alternative to the traditional responses school discipline imposes. Students’ peers directly strengthen relationships and enable the offender to reconnect, ensuring they do not experience isolation or ostracization.

The Tiers of Restorative Justice

Tier I: Prevention

The first foundational tier centers upon community and includes talking circles that reflect values of inclusiveness, respect, and supporting healing. Many times schools have contracts to empower community members to act upon their shared values.

Tier II: Intervention

This tier is utilized when students break rules and harm another. It recommends mediation to offer the offending student a chance to come forward and make amends by meeting with the affected parties and a mediator, usually a teacher. They engage in a dialogue to form a plan.

Tier III: Reintegration

The last tier is intended for kids with prolonged absences – whether it be due to suspension, expulsion, incarceration, or truancy. The adjustment is normally incredibly difficult and has resulted in many students voluntarily dropping out. Restorative justice practices are intended to acknowledge the challenges these students face in reintegrating, while promoting accountability and achievement. A wrap-around, supportive environment is intended to prevent recidivism. 

What Does Restorative Justice Look Like in Schools?

Many schools develop core values. The June Jordan School for Equity uses the acronym RICH to describe theirs: Respect, Integrity, Courage, and Humility. These values provide a common language for students, parents, and teachers to understand what is expected of those within the school community. It is critical that these values are enforced and individuals are held accountable for acting accordingly.

Restorative justice may also include investment and wrap around support by providing resources and support to the school community. Stakeholders are often given individualized support through coaching, training, and professional development. They are taught ways to cultivate positive school culture, specifically through activities that foster a sense of belonging and pride in their school community.

Team-building exercises may be incorporated to further build relationships. One example is peace walks. These efforts may be bolstered by regular, positive feedback through daily and one-on-one check-ins with restorative practices specialists. 

Several schools have implemented relationship-building circles as an alternative to suspension and similar exclusionary disciplinary methods. It has been shown to improve communication, listening, and focusing skills. The circles are often implemented for students in crisis or those returning to the school following a prolonged absence. They prepare a student for reentry and usually involve all members of the school community, including teachers and families.

Circles, however, are not restricted to a specific population and have proven to be a strong means of facilitating conversation – whether it be through dialogue circles, mediation circles, and healing circles. 

How Can You Hold Students Accountable?

Peer courts are a common practice in which students are given the option to attend a sort of trial where student advocate presents the case while a judge and jury listen, assessing the harm inflicted and determining the facts of the case. Together, they develop an alternative consequence plan that prioritizes tutoring, hours spent in a leadership class, and/or serving time on the peer court jury.

Members of peer court have been trained in: asking questions, interviewing, writing statements, speaking to the judge and jury, fair and appropriate ACP’s, coaching the respondent through the process, and checking in with the respondent later.

Courts are a formal version of a common practice of implementing restorative justice. Most often, this involves questions, which may be asked in a circle: 

  • What can you do to fix this? 
  • How would you feel if the same thing happened to you? 
  • And how did your behavior impact your fellow students? In what way? 
  • What were you thinking about at the time? 
  • What have you thought about since?

Those who are harmed respond to restorative questions as well: 

  • What did you think when you realized what happened? 
  • What impact has this had on you and others? 
  • What has been the hardest thing for you? 
  • What do you think needs to happen to make things right?

How Has Restorative Justice Proven Successful?

It reduces the rates of recidivism and the post-traumatic stress of the offense. Stakeholders have echoed these results, reporting greater satisfaction with the outcomes. Student behavior has improved as well as relationships among teachers and students, students and their peers, teachers and their colleagues, and ultimately the school and its larger community.

Is Restorative Justice a Less Severe Form of Punishment?

Restorative justice discussion is not intended to be an alternative to punishment. It should preclude resentment by ensuring children understand the gravity and meaning of their actions. 

How Does Bias Fit Into This?

Bias has become ingrained in our society. It is imperative notice the way it appears, especially through differences in hiring practices. A more welcoming and inclusive culture can then be integrated into the larger community.

As Matt Alexander said, “You can’t restore justice to the community when you haven’t created a community to begin with.”  

Data and Restorative Justice

Data has revealed restorative justice requires commitment and extensive implementation, that often be costly and difficult. Some claim the practice requires years before a definitive answer can reveal its effectiveness.

Nevertheless, some schools have been successful, especially in California. Oakland Unified School District began using the program at a failing middle school in 2006. In merely three years, they were able to decrease suspensions by 87 percent, and witnessed a marked decrease in violence.

Are There Any Other Benefits?

Restorative justice is intended to improve student outcomes while addressing the root causes to better student behavior, especially through improved communication, which is regarded as a critical life skill. Additionally, improved relationships are intended to lower stress for teachers and offer more time for teaching.