Righting the Wrongs in School Discipline
Inequities exist in K-12 education. Historically disenfranchised students are marginalized from classrooms because of structural and systemic racism and inequities that permeate schools across the United States (Ladson-Billings, Tate, 1997; Young, 2014). Implicit bias of educators causes students of color to be disproportionality removed from the classroom or suspended at a much higher rate than their White counterparts (Kline, 2016; Skiba et al., 2014). These issues continue to propagate the ever-present achievement gap, which is a clear indication of the limitations that multiple groups of disadvantaged students have for accessing educational opportunities (Gregory et al., 2010). Even more troubling is that traditional punitive disciplinary approaches are continuing to fill the school-to-prison pipeline (Noltemeyer et al., 2015). One practice that is seeking to alter this cycle of injustice is restorative justice (RJ).
Restorative Justice (RJ) is, at its core, a paradigm shift in the way that educators view and engage in student discipline. The philosophies that underpin RJ practices have been documented well in the research literature (Hopkins, 2002; Karp & Breslin, 2001; Kline, 2016; Winn, 2018). However, schools and LEAs have been taking these philosophies and, with the support of equity-minded researchers and RJ program designers, turning them into substantial and effective student services that have a clear effect on the disproportionality of discipline and the achievement gap (Hopkins, 2002; Winn, 2018).
In this article, I explore RJ through the lens of student services to identify an organizational structure and action plan that will lead to educational equity for historically marginalized groups. The article includes a description of the desired outcomes of RJ programs, a brief review of the dense research literature surrounding the topic and a programmatic description and action plan based on experiences with school implementation of RJ.
Why Restorative Justice?
Gregory, Skiba, and Noguera (2010) demonstrate the clear connection between the disproportionality of discipline that students of color face and the perennial achievement gap. Furthermore, sociocultural learning theorists have demonstrated the connection between positive social relationships and student achievement (Bransford et al., 2000). So, it is logical that an approach, such as RJ, that seeks to keep students in the classroom learning, building and maintaining positive student-teacher relationships, and teaching students ways of self-reflection, will have a positive impact on student achievement (Hammond, 2014; Winn, 2018). There is a growing body of literature that directly supports the ability of RJ programs to decrease suspension rates while improving campus climate (Hopkins, 2002; Karp & Breslin, 2001; Sandwick et al., 2019). This is especially true when the programmatic structures, facilitated through student services, is complemented by a school-wide shift in ethos and comprehensive professional development (Sandwick et al., 2019).
A Little Background
The history of RJ practices can be traced back to the early 1970s (Sullivan & Tifft, 2007). Its foundations are global in scale. RJ originated in “truth commissions”, which were formed in countries where events required reconciliation and healing after tragic injustices divided the nation (Sullivan & Tifft, 2007). In 2002, the United Nations adopted Marshall’s (1996) definition of RJ: “a process whereby all the parties with a stake in a particular offense come together to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offense and its implications for the future” (Sullivan & Tifft, 2007). These practices have been applied to the United States corrections system and have more recently been at the center of changing behavioral philosophies in K-12 and high educations systems. The goal of implementation in K-12 education is to move away from zero-tolerance systems that in-equitably suspend, expel, and remove students from the education setting, to a system that focuses on restoring relationships, learning from mistakes, and growing in empathy for others (Winn, 2018).
Winn (2018) notes that if punitive punishments like suspensions and expulsions are options for educators, then they will be used. These old paradigms reject well established socio-cultural learning theories that establish how learning takes place in a relationship (Bransford et al., 2000). When schools and communities allow students to become disenfranchised and alienated from the classrooms, it naturally leads to a pattern of broken relationships between students and teachers. Bazmore (1999) defined restorative practices as “relational rehab,” which speaks to the goal of healing broken relationships and developing empathy towards participants (Karp & Breslin, 2001). This notion is a central tenet of RJ.
Theory to Practice
Schuh, Jones, and Harper (2010) outline multiple critical theoretical perspectives that are helpful for framing this issue. Critical Race Theory (CRT), as originally theorized by Ladson-Billings and Tate (1995), contains core tenets that provide educators and policymakers a lens through which to view how racism is perpetuated and the effects that it continues to have on marginalized students (Schuh et al., 2010). However, CRT alone does not provide a framework from which educators and policymakers can understand the needs of RJ for all students. That is why it is also to consider intersectionality (Schuh et al., 2010).
Theories of intersectionality include a variety of important tenets, but two are key to shaping our understanding of RJ practices. (1) Identities are influenced by social forces, such as power, privilege, and inequality (Schuh et al., 2010). The power dynamics within school organizations are not shaped by hierarchical and visual structures alone. There are other social forces that inform the levels of power and privilege from teacher to student and, even, from student to student. (2) Intersectionality calls for a study on the lived experience of marginalized people (Schuh et al., 2010). RJ provides a vehicle for students and communities to tell their stories and to share their perspectives.
Restorative Justice in Action
Winn (2018) posits that, for schools, RJ is more of a paradigm shift, then a programmatic decision. She states that educators often fail to effectively implement RJ because they (1) have not been adequately trained or (2) have not done the “mind-set” work to reorient their own world view and implicit bias to one of equity and social justice. The beginning of any shift towards undoing the institutional barriers, like those motivated by differences in race, gender, and ability, starts with an acknowledgment of one’s implicit bias, and oftentimes, one’s own privilege (Greenwald & Krieger, 2006). Winn (2018) created a guiding framework that educators can use as they seek to shift to a restorative justice-oriented paradigm:
Pedagogical Stance 1: History Matter
Seek to understand histories that have caused group-level power dynamics that are present in school.
Pedagogical Stance 2: Race Matters
Evaluate how racism or racist ideas play a role in how you think and interact with students.
Pedagogical Stance 3: Justice Matters
Establish an ideology that considers everyone — regardless of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, sexuality, or ability — is worthy of dignity and belonging.
Pedagogical Stance 4: Language Matters
Develop inclusive language patterns that recognize how history, race, and justice affect historically marginalized populations.
Figure 1 Winn’s (2018) Paradigm Shifting Pedagogical Tools
A paradigm shift towards RJ is an essential first step for educators (Winn, 2018). However, schools and LEA’s must implement programmatic structures, facilitate professional development, and dedicate resources to make this “paradigm” an actionable part of their school community. The research literature points to three key components of RJ that schools should develop: (1) meditation, (2) restorative circles, and (3) conferencing (Sandwick et al., 2019). The functions of these three elements are more clearly outlined in figure 2 a table from Hopkins (2002) outline of how to use RJ in schools.
Figure 2. The Processes and Skills of Restorative Justice
Making the Shift to Restorative Justices
The goals of student services in K-12 education are vast and varied, however, one framework being utilized by the California Department of Education is intended to provide a structure for support of the whole student. This is the Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) framework that has recently been introduced by the state of California (CDE, 2019). The goal of MTSS is to provide tiered support systems including (1) universal tier 1 supports for all students, (2) tier 2 support for some, and (3) tier 3 support for few students. The MTSS framework is designed to support the whole student through a convergence of three areas of support. These areas include support for academics, social and emotional learning, and behavior (see Appendix A). This framework can be used as a response to the claim that Student services in K-12 are often compartmentalized and even separated. RJ can be delivered through this framework to offer equal importance to behavioral support as academic support. The implementation of MTSS, which places equal value on the behavioral and academic aspects of a student, empowers schools and LEAs to educate the whole child.
The largest obstacle to the success of an RJ program is the task of shifting the paradigm of each staff member. Often the decision to implement change is made with the best interest of students in mind. However, the hyperfocus on student success sometimes results in overlooking the need to care for staff members charged with implementing change. A well designed and implemented RJ program will result in improved student and staff interactions, improved relationships between teachers and learners, and will increase achievement for historically marginalized student groups by empowering them in classrooms that are designed as safe places to learn (Hopkins, 2002; Karp & Breslin, 2001; Sandwick et al., 2019). However, to do this work on behalf of students, the work must begin and end with ensuring the needs of staff are met (Webb &Norton, 2013). A multi-year implementation of this magnitude will be challenging work, that will force staff to explore their own implicit biases. The self reflection necessary to make this shift can be triggering for some and painful for others. While engaging in this work, staff may feel a loss of control and that feeling of loss can result in a staff member experiencing some or all of the seven stages of grieving including shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing and acceptance (Taylor, P. G., 2000). During this paradigm-shifting work, leaders must be looking for these signs and use these as markers for where staff are engaged in the change.
Done well, this program implementation could have a profound impact on both students and staff. When teachers are able to make the shift to realizing that all student behavior has a function, and that for example what looks like defiance is actually task avoidance, then behavior can be used as an instrument to assist in student development rather than a condition deserving of punishment (Winn, 2018). Teachers who are able to make this shift, to understand their own implicit biases, are then freed to recognize the limitlessness potential of the students they serve. This shift leads to an increase in expectation of student success. As pointed out by Bransford et al. (2000), high expectation of student success on the part of the teacher, is a predictor of student performance. Furthermore, when high expectations permeate the entire school culture, this demonstrates a collective efficacy that, according to Pierce (2014) has a positive impact on student achievement.
This article is meant to provide a brief overview of Restorative Justice, provide some insight into implementation in K-12 schools, and get leaders thinking about their own practice. However, the answers are not easy. The process of implementing a successful RJ program is long and requires commitment from multiple stakeholders. That commitment must begin with a paradigm shift towards social justice.