On April 12, 2018, at John Witherspoon Middle School, Dr. Anne Gregory of Rutgers University shared her research on restorative justice. Restorative justice is an alternative method of treating students who are perceived to be defiant, disrespectful, and insubordinate. Instead of punishment in the form of suspension, restorative justice focuses on social and emotional learning as an attempt to improve and correct student behavior. Rather than “exiling” a student through suspension, restorative justice helps students understand their thoughts and behavior, the harm it may cost others, and the healing that’s necessary to remain in school and to learn. The students confront their mistakes, are held accountable and are more likely to remain in school to graduate.
Dr. Gregory shared data showing that students with repeated suspensions are 20% less likely to graduate from high school or go to college and 3 times more likely to get in trouble with the police. Traditional disciplinary methods involving suspension and other punitive measures tend to support the “school to prison pipeline.”
The two groups most at risk for repeated school suspension are Black males and students with disabilities, both male and female. In one study, teachers were asked to observe a video of a preschool class and determine which children were more likely become troublemakers. The teachers wore glasses with eye-tracking software, allowing researchers to track eye movements. The study showed that the observers tracked Black children more than White children, even though no disruptive behavior was demonstrated by any of the children. The experiment revealed implicit racial bias on the part of the teacher/observers.
There is evidence that restorative justice programs are helping students stay in school and become more active and engaged learners. Developing social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision-making, self-awareness (including implicit bias), and self-management (regulating emotions) for both staff and students are keys to the success of restorative justice.
Interventions involve Community Building Circles, where students and staff share vulnerabilities and have their voice heard. More intensive interventions involve restorative dialogue and re-entry circles. The goals are similar, to build trust and community, be supported emotionally and socially, make informed decisions, stay in the school system, and become better students.
Like all new initiatives, restorative justice programs have their problems. However, having committed leadership, staff training and prioritizing relationships over rules, and self-management over suspension are critical to success.