Restorative justice is a system of reconciliation and accountability that brings together the offender, victim, and others to mediate and resolve problems. It holds students accountable to their peers, allowing students to act as mediators for some discipline problems and help in identifying a conflict resolution.
Schools across the country, and in New Hampshire, have taken this approach in resolving student and faculty conflicts.
With just two words, a classroom can be thrown into chaos. Anne Gregory, an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University, recalls just such a scenario when an angry high school student shouted an expletive (“F— off!”) at his teacher, bringing class to a halt.
Gregory, who studies school discipline, wasn’t present for the outburst itself but she saw its aftermath. At many schools, she explains, the response would be simple: send the student straight to an administrator to mete out punishment, probably a suspension.
Instead, the vice principal came to the classroom. He dismissed most students for their lunch break while inviting anyone who felt personally affected by the incident to remain in the room with the teacher and the outspoken student. Then that smaller group, under the vice principal’s guidance, discussed what had just happened.
Gregory was witnessing a restorative circle. It’s a practice derived from a movement in education known as restorative justice, an approach to discipline that replaces punishment with repairing harm. And it is sweeping across schools nationwide.
In the classroom Gregory observed, all those gathered shared their perspective. The teacher expressed remorse for reacting to the student’s outburst with so much frustration. Another student reflected on her own struggles with anger management. And the young man whose words sparked the incident apologized and described how the stress of a difficult morning had boiled over in his behavior. He then agreed to help his teacher set up her Powerpoint and distribute textbooks at the beginning of each class as a way of compensating his classmates’ lost instructional time.
The incident neatly illustrates how the restorative process brings a community together at a moment when, traditionally, conflict might divide the classroom. But is it worth all of that effort? Evidence from the court system, school surveys and controlled experiments suggests restorative justice can indeed do a lot of good. Although more studies are needed to explore its full effects on schools, the research thus far hints that this approach to discipline helps people feel respected and that they, in turn, show greater respect for rules.
Schools like Pittsfield Middle High School in New Hampshire have used restorative justice programs to mediate student conflict. The approach emphasizes community and empathy, and can create more equitable environments, according to educator and researcher Kathy Evans:
“Restorative justice can’t just be a set of things that we do,” Evans says. “It has to be a framework for how we view teaching and learning.” For example, whereas traditional school discipline emphasizes managing bad behaviors, restorative approaches start by encouraging students and teachers to embrace the idea that all members of the school community should be treated with dignity and fairness. The circle process, in which every voice is heard and multiple perspectives considered, is one example. As a result, proponents argue, students take the school’s rules more seriously because they feel more invested in that community and their school relationships.
And there’s evidence for that effect. In 2016, a study led by Jason Okonofua, a professor of psychology at the University of California Berkeley, found that a brief empathy training program for middle-school teachers not only changed their behavior but shifted student perspectives. Post-intervention, the team found, middle schoolers felt more respected and motivated to behave better.
Another study from Anne Gregory and her colleagues surveyed 412 students across 29 classrooms where teachers had received restorative justice training specifically. The researchers found that the more teachers immersed themselves in restorative practices, the better students rated their relationships with these teachers. And the strong relationships in turn linked to a greater sense of respect between teacher and student and fewer disciplinary referrals…