As data about the ineffectiveness of suspensions and other punitive school disciplinary methods have accumulated and concerns about the school to prison pipeline and mass incarceration have gotten louder and more insistent, schools are increasingly looking for alternative strategies for creating a climate of safety, accountability, and fairness. In this context, more and more school districts are encouraging and sometimes even mandating that schools introduce restorative practices as either an addition to or a substitute for punitive discipline.
School restorative practices vary widely, but most such practices bring together those who were harmed and those who did the harm (along with adults representing the interests of the school community) for the purpose of mutual understanding, self-responsibility, community accountability, repairing of harm (including relationships) and reintegration of the person causing the harm back into the school community.
Despite the increasing prevalence of restorative programs in U.S. schools, there is as yet little research on the impact of such practices in school settings (Evans & Lester, 2013). The majority of the research that does exist compares school discipline records and the number of detentions and suspensions before and after a restorative justice (RJ) program is implemented. Although this information is useful, it is potentially misleading as a measure of RJ effectiveness as suspensions can be reduced through a "suspend less" policy change that is entirely independent of the RJ program.
A new study -- Outcomes of a Restorative Circle Program in a High School Setting -- used qualitative interviews to identify the benefits and downsides associated with school-based restorative practices, from the perspective of both the adults and the students in an urban high school in Virginia where over 90% of students are African American and over 75% are eligible for free/reduced lunch. Restorative Circles, the specific restorative practice used by this school, was originally developed by Dominic Barter and associates in Brazil. The short video below briefly describes the process:
This post focuses just on the six benefits as reported directly by the interviewed students and adults. With the exception of Bypassing Adults, which was only a benefit reported by students and Improvements in Academic and Social Achievement, which was only reported by adults, all of the benefits were reported independently by both students and school personnel. The quotes below from students and school staff appear as they did in the original article, with permission from the first author, Lilyana Ortega. The full text has many more such quotes.
1. Ownership of the process/ bypassing adults
Students (but not adults) talked about using the Circle process to work through their conflicts because it was, at least some of the time, better than fighting. Students also talked about using the Circle process without adult involvement.
Me and my friend were playing around in class and we actually solved [a conflict using] the Circle. It was fun but it was serious too and we did it all by ourself. Cause my friend that used to be in the facilitator circle training, me and her we was just playing at first but my other friend, the girl I'll call my friend and the girl I'll call my sister, they was arguing about something or whatever. So me and X said, "let's have a circle." and then we was playing - we was playing though, and then it actually solved their problem. Now they talk. So we actually did a Circle, all by ourselves. -12th female
2. Interrupting the school to prison pipeline
Both students and adults spoke about a shift to less punitive methods of dealing with student conflict. Students discussed that a positive outcome of the RC program was that they were not getting suspended or "locked up." Similarly, adults explained that a positive outcome of the RC program was not having to give as many suspensions or detentions. This category speaks to the negative consequences of zero tolerance policies contributing to the "school to prison pipeline". Students seemed very aware of how the (punitive) methods that the school used for dealing with student conflict often resulted in them being suspended or "locked up." Students attributed not being suspended or "charged" to the RC program. Similarly, adults stated being less reliant on punitive methods and more willing to talk things out using RC principles.
I noticed that some fights, some arguments, some fights get talked out more, instead of just suspension, instead of just suspending somebody from school, where they get away from their education for like five days, they don't learn nothing for that whole five days. Instead of doing that [suspensions] you could do a circle and they do the circle they sign the paper, then they go to class, and they become friends again, or they leave each other alone. -11th female
3. Improved relationships
One of the goals of the RC program is to restore relationships to how they were before the conflict. In this case, students and adults talked not only about restored relationships, but also about building better relationships with those with whom they experienced conflict.
Me and this kid [were] about to fight, and I think I, uh, I got in his face. I was upset and, you know, everybody wanted to hype up the situation. It wasn't like that. I just wanted to get a little closer to see what he was saying. And so, uh, me and him ended up being cool after that [the Circle]. -10th male
I've only participated in one circle and it was arguably the most revolutionary thing I've ever seen. I mean these girls couldn't walk within 50 feet of each other without, "I can't believe she's" you know, and then, now, they talk, they say "hi" to each other. I mean, they literally would walk down the hall and "I'm gonna hit her, I'm gonna you know," and it was just a complete turn around [after the Circle], I think the Circle gave them an opportunity to voice their opinion and then the other heard and voiced their opinion. Then they came to this epiphany that they're actually more alike than they are different. --Counselor
4. Less destructive conflict