Any new policy threatening to push out long held traditions around student discipline will naturally be met with skepticism. There are some who see the merits of restorative justice techniques in today’s schools but remain unconvinced that it can be successfully implemented. But others, like these letters to the editor at the LA Times, demonstrate a plethora of concerns over restorative justice methodology that goes well beyond implementation.
While remaining valid concerns, the issues raised in this editorial are rooted in a series of myths surrounding restorative justice rather than thoughtfully researched data. Here are five of these myths around restorative justice (RJ) and what the data really has to say.
Myth #1: Less out-of-school suspensions means more disruptive students in class.
The whole point of out-of-school suspensions is to get trouble students out of the class so that teachers and other students can enjoy a peaceful environment. Myth #1 claims that keeping trouble students in class to resolve their issues instead of sending them home will doom other students to ongoing disruptive incidents.
Truth: Restorative justice methods improve in-class behavior and promote more productive learning for the entire class.
NPR news program The Takeaway recently interviewed David O’Hara, principal of Leaders High School, in New York City, about the school’s restorative justice programs. Rather than increasing disruptive incidents in the classroom, because of their RJ program, Leaders High School has “seen a nearly 70 percent decrease in disputes and incidents, and zero suspensions so far this year.”
The results we are seeing at Hero schools that are embracing Restorative Justice are consistent with Leaders High School. Restorative justice works because it tackles the real problems behind bad behavior rather than simply removing the student responsible.
Myth #2: Restorative justice disempowers teachers.
With many schools choosing to get rid of out-of-school suspensions as a punitive policy, critics of Restorative Justice claim that the policy robs teachers of the authority to make proper decisions for their classroom environment. As one LA Times reader put it…
“Who can justify depriving a teacher of the ability to suspend a willfully defiant student?”
Truth: Restorative justice gives teachers more tools to restore order to their classroom and make a profound difference in the lives of their students.
In today’s litigious society, teachers have fewer and fewer options in regards to student discipline. RJ gives teachers another set of tools to bring back peace to the learning environment.
Crystal Lake Middle School, one of our Hero schools, is a great example of this. By implementing restorative justice disciplinary policies and a school-wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program, they’ve seen an 81% decrease in suspensions. And, like Leaders High School, they experience an extremely low incidence rate with “99% of the kids on campus are doing what they are supposed to be doing,” according to the principal, Sabine Phillips.
Myth #3: Restorative justice policies allow students to blame their problems on others.
With its emphasis on communication, RJ is often seen as a way for students to avoid tough consequences and personal responsibility. The fear is that “talking it out” is simply projecting blame onto the student’s home life, economic situation, etc. rather than facing his or her guilt.
Truth: Restorative justice teaches students the consequences of their own behavior by facilitating communication with the victims of their bad behavior.
Despite the appearance of decisive action, out-of-school and in-school suspensions never address the real cause of the bad behavior. It allows the student to avoid the people they’ve harmed and ignore the damage they’re causing to themselves.
Restorative justice, on the other hand, centers around communication, forcing all the participants involved in the situation to come together in a candid discussion about what happened followed by actionable next steps to improve. Principal O’Hara explains the effect of restorative justice methods on the students involved like this:
“It’s really hard for a student to come to a circle and look eye to eye to the person that he harmed and to hear how his victim has experienced this whole situation, how other key stakeholders, how the teachers were harmed by all this. But also discuss what he was experiencing and come up with next steps so he can repair the that he’s caused.”
Myth #4: Restorative justice takes responsibility away from parents and puts it all on the teacher.
A common misconception around out-of-school suspensions is that parents will instill their own form of discipline while the student is at home and thereby participate with teachers in correcting the unwelcome behavior. This, unfortunately, doesn’t happen in most cases.
With traditional forms of punishment, parental involvement is assumed and passively invited.
Truth: Properly implemented restorative justice programs actively seek the support of faculty, administration, and parents.
Restorative justice relies on improved communications between the student and their teachers, peers, and parents. Research shows that the level of success a student achieves is directly associated with whether or not the student’s family encourages learning and is involved in the student’s education at school. Taking the findings of this research into account, along with some good old-fashioned common sense, RJ brings parents into the circle of communication instead of sending the student home and hoping the parents join the effort.
Myth #5: Restorative justice doesn’t give teachers a big enough stick (a.k.a. “serious consequences”) to threaten trouble students into good behavior.
In the letters to the editor article mentioned above, one critic said,
“With defiant and disrespectful students no longer facing serious consequences for their behavior aside from being sent to a talking circle, LAUSD teachers will either leave their profession or find employment at other school districts that require students to pay a price for bad behavior.”
Truth: Traditional punishments are harsh and decisive, but they do not work. Restorative justice programs focus on solving the real cause of the issue, resulting in positive behaviors.
When asked about the results he saw from “serious” consequences like out-of-school suspensions, O’Hara was candid.
“With the traditional method, we’d send a student home for two or three days for making a mistake, and they wouldn’t do anything. They’d become even more disenfranchised. They’d come back angrier—nothing was solved—the behavior was not changed at all.”
Traditional consequences have not been proven effective despite their wide-spread use. Worse yet, studies show that out-of-school suspensions actually harm the overall performance of the non-suspended students.
With restorative justice methods—yes, including the talking circle—students must face the reality of their poor behavior. They are held accountable to their peers, teachers, administrators, and parents.
At Hero, we believe Restorative Justice to be a much more serious approach to student discipline. The data is explicit. Out-of-school suspensions simply do not work. Clearly, it’s time to change, even if that change is met at first with skepticism.