Restorative justice also boosts school climate

Restorative justice also boosts school climate

(Mass.) Restorative justice techniques often used to lower suspension and expulsion rates may also boost school climate by strengthening relationships between students and teachers, according to a recent study.

The report, “Restorative Justice in U.S. Schools,” found that in 70 percent of cases, teachers’ respect for students improved, and in 75 percent, students’ respect for teachers increased.

“A shift away from a culture of punishment and towards a more restorative environment is resulting in improved relationships between and among students and teachers,” analysts from the nonprofit WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center wrote.

Schools across the country have been adopting restorative justice policies in recent years as a way to reduce pupil suspensions and expulsions by allowing students a chance to take responsibility for their actions through mediation or group counseling.

The goal is often to step back from “zero tolerance” policies, which have historically led to African American students and students with disabilities especially being suspended or expelled at alarming rates for minor infractions such as texting in class, violating the dress code or tardiness. Research has also indicates that many students who are suspended or expelled oftentimes are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.

WestEd’s report is based on 169 surveys and 18 interviews across 18 states, including California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts and Illinois, as well as Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. Many of the respondents, who practice restorative justice techniques at their schools, were teachers, counselors, assistant principals, social workers and school psychologists – the majority of who had less than 10 years’ experience in leading restorative exercises.

Although the authors concluded that the smaller sample size limits the generalizations that can be made, there are still take-aways for those interested in using restorative justice practices.

The most common issues schools handled with restorative justice techniques included verbal conflicts between students or staff and students, bullying, minor behavior infractions, physical altercations and truancy. They also reported using the restorative justice technique known as “preventive discussions” – weekly group meetings designed to help avoid future conflicts.

 “The top three answers – verbal conflicts, preventative discussions, and minor behavior infractions suggest that schools are using RJ to both prevent conflict and resolve relatively minor issues,” the authors wrote.

Cases such as fighting and bullying, however, were often handled on a case-by-case basis either through traditional sanctions or restorative justice.

The most popular technique – reportedly used by 90 percent of those questioned – was “circles,” which involves bringing everyone impacted by an incident into a circle for discussion.

Other commonly used techniques included restorative questioning, in which targeted questions are asked of a student immediately after a situation in order to diffuse it, and one-on-one mediation between two students or a student and a teacher.

If a student continued to misbehave after using the restorative justice approach, 35 percent of respondents said the student was given another chance to use the approach, and 22 percent said the student would face traditional school sanctions. In many cases, either option would be used on an individual basis.

Overall, approximately 70 percent of participants saw a reduction in suspensions and an improvement in the overall climate at their schools, and almost 60 percent reported increased academic achievement. Many said it was too early in the implementation process to be able to report results.

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