What Is Restorative Justice (And Why Is My Child’s School Talking About It?)

By Jennifer Sunami

Restorative justice—it feels like a buzzword, but it’s a concept that is radical in its simplicity and power. Restorative practices are based on the idea that while the harm caused by negative behavior can’t be erased, it can be healed and reconciled. The perpetrator and victim have to confront and communicate with each other to figure out the root cause of the conflict and determine the appropriate restitution for the offense. Unlike traditional retributive disciplinary methods that focus on punishment, restorative justice is concerned with giving both sides the opportunity to understand why a conflict happened, what harm the conflict caused, and what can be done to put things right. In practice, this might mean sitting down in a talking circle or simply having a mediated conversation. The important part is that the focus is on communication and reconciliation. The process requires trust and time, but the use of restorative practices instead of punishments has been rapidly gaining ground in the school and court systems, driven in part by the on-going exposure of the underlying racial bias in both.

Seattle schools got a wake-up call on that count in 2013. The U.S. Department of Education launched a “compliance review” into the disproportionate punishment of Black and Native students in Seattle Public Schools. The investigation forced the district to acknowledge the issue of unequal discipline publicly. Black students were being suspended from school at more than three times the rate of White students, and there was evidence that other punishments were also being applied more frequently and more harshly against Black, Brown, and Native students. SPS also looked at how unequal discipline often started as early as kindergarten, undermining trust between students and schools, and launching repeated patterns of punishment that could cause long-term damage to kids. In response to these disturbing statistics, SPS instituted a moratorium in 2015 on certain kinds of out-of-school suspensions for elementary school students. By 2018, all this soul-searching had resulted in the announcement of a move towards using restorative practices district-wide to deal with behavioral problems.

The driving forces behind disciplinary inequality are complex, ranging from the adultification of children, to a lack of cultural understanding, and more. Turning to restorative justice can offer a way to potentially sidestep the worst consequences of punishment bias, and also provide a structured way to examine that bias. Using restorative practices rather than relying on out-of-school suspensions and other harsh punishments helps ensure that students remain part of the school community, instead of starting a cycle of punishment and disengagement that can have negative repercussions far beyond the classroom. However, implementing talking circles and the like requires time, people, and training. The adoption of restorative practices in all of Seattle’s public schools has been patchy. Despite these challenges, though, schools such as Leschi Elementary have worked hard to build internal cultures that keep kids connected to the school even when they are struggling with issues that cause them to act out. Restorative practices have played an important role in keeping these school communities whole.

Restorative practices are built on relationships and thus demand lots of teacher, administrator, parent, and community support. They ask us to ignore the shortcut of retributive justice so we can put in the hard work of reconciliation. But these methods have the potential to have as great an effect on student behavior and well-being as more punitive methods, with far more positive outcomes. They aren’t a magic bullet, but they are one way to staunch the flow of the school-to-prison pipeline. Of course changing the system is hard. But isn’t it worth the effort?