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Restorative justice: An alternative method to make schools safer?

Yesterday’s Student Safety Act rally brings to light the need to explore alternatives to policing for making schools safer. Few would dispute the need for school safety agents to handle the most serious incidents of violence, but what options exist for resolving the low-level incidents that characterize many school environments and make students feel unsafe on a day-to-day basis? Could school safety agents and others in schools play a different role in resolving conflicts? Finally, how can schools prevent problems and resolve underlying issues? This post takes a look at one possibility — expect more in coming weeks.

What is restorative justice?

An article about restorative justice in Rethinking Schools describes what happened when a student who broke a window at Humanities Prep in Manhattan went before the school’s “Fairness Committee”:

During that session, the members of the committee found out that the day before he broke the window, his family received notice that they were being kicked out of their shelter and had no place to go. While this did not fully excuse his actions, we were able to discuss more fully and fairly what the consequences should be, as well as discuss more constructive ways to deal with anger. We jointly decided that he needed to give back to the school community in some way. Knowing that it would be ridiculous to ask a student who was homeless to pay for the window, we all agreed he would help answer the phone after school for a month. In the meantime, his advisor and the school social worker were able to reach out to his family and offer support. If the fairness committee had been a systematic, rigid mechanism, we would not have been able to brainstorm these solutions.

“Restorative justice” refers to interventions like that conference that facilitate discussion among the offending student, those harmed by his or her actions, and others with significant relationships to either the victim or offender, such as family members. The process seeks to make the offender aware of the harm he or she has caused, take responsibility for it, and try to repair that harm to the extent possible by making reparation to the victim or community.

Nice idea, but does it work in schools?

A 2004 report of the Youth Justice Board of England and Wales (available in summary or full-report versions) reviewed restorative justice programs implemented in 26 schools (all but 6 were secondary schools), comparing them with similar schools that did not implement restorative justice programs.

Specific intervention models varied, but all schools used some for of facilitated conference. According to the report, 46% of conferences involved a physical incident between students, another 25% a verbal incident between students, and about 8% involved physical or verbal incidents between a student and a teacher. Almost a quarter of conferences were about long-term conflicts. Conference mediators were trained in restorative justice techniques and included school staff, volunteers, professional mediators, and in some cases, local police officers.

The evaluation found that 92% of conferences resulted in an agreement, and that two to three months after the conferences, 96% of the agreements had been upheld, suggesting successful long-term resolution of conflicts. Nearly all (89%) of students were happy with the outcomes, according to the report, and 93% found the process fair.

The report found no statistically significant differences in levels of victimization when comparing restorative justice schools to those without such programs, but suggested this might be due to the relatively short time period of the study. Meanwhile, school staff members reported a decrease in misbehavior in restorative justice schools, while staff in comparison schools actually reported an increase in misbehavior.

A review of restorative justice in Colorado found similar results in terms of participant satisfaction with conference outcomes, along with anecdotal evidence that students were not re-offending. An article in School Board News reviewed restorative justice initiatives in the US and found that they can decrease disciplinary referrals, disruptive behavior, and suspensions.

But what about serious, violent conflicts?

On the RealJustice website, Mary Shafer describes a restorative justice conference in inner-city Albany, NY, that helped resolve an on-going, violent conflict between youths. While the conference successfully changed a dangerous pattern of behavior, the facilitators point out that it’s a labor-intensive, high-commitment process. The facilitators of this conference, John Cutro and Dennis Mosley, had to build buy-in among participants, some of whom were not initially willing to cooperate with the conference process. In addition to those directly involved and their family members, Shafer reports, Cutro and Mosley included “a “normative group” of people representing different viewpoints to offer perspective on an incident” along with “bridge participants” who were trusted by people on both sides. Despite the challenges, participants came to consensus around the need for stopping the cycle of violence.

Here in NYC, Community Prep High School, which serves youth who have just left juvenile detention settings, has introduced restorative practices in a partnership with the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES) and the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP). According to the principal, these practices have made the school safer and allowed some students to return to their neighborhood high schools.

To learn more…

Restorative justice techniques, implemented properly, seem like a promising addition to the landscape of school safety in New York, worth investigating further. Educators, parents, and others who are interested can begin by visiting SaferSanerSchools, the NYS Community Justice Forum, and the IIRP websites.

If you know of effective programs in the city, or other studies of this process, or to recommend other alternatives to suspension and arrest that we should look into, please leave us a comment or email tips@gothamschools.org.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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