Is Restorative Justice Practical in the American Public School System?
I recently attended restorative justice training so I could advise teachers and other faculty members on how to incorporate this process into consequences for various student behaviors.
The trainer led with an example of the type of situations she encounters: An African American parent from the Bronx told her child that she must go outside and fight another child, and if she lost she would have to deal with her mother. I’m sure I surprised many in the training space because I identified with the example. As an African American child growing up in a low socioeconomic environment, I have found myself in this circumstance many times. Not that this is an appropriate way to settle conflict, but it has been generationally engrained into African American culture as a means to end a disagreement. This recollection of my childhood and the combination of my social work training led me to think … what alternatives can be effective in an environment where individuals don’t really know any other way to mediate conflict?
Restorative justice is defined as “a planned and scheduled face-to-face conference in which a trained facilitator ‘brings together offenders, their victims, and their respective kin and communities, in order to decide what the offender should do to repair the harm that a crime has caused’” (Strang et al., 2013).
In my current school system, we are attempting to implement this practice. School social workers have been trained to sit the students and their parents together so that the relationship may be repaired using the restorative justice model. However, even in a school system that is provided a multitude of resources, it seems that the adverse experiences of children and their families are not acknowledged during this practice. From my perspective, poverty and other traumas can hinder this practice from being effective.
Hurley et al. (2015) argue that “Proper implementation requires that those responsible for implementation have a clear understanding of the school climate and of the nature, extent, and source of the issues that the school has to contend with before implementing [restorative justice].” This, I believe, includes the socioeconomic needs of the students.
For instance, in the example mentioned above, let’s say this family is currently socioeconomically disadvantaged and the parent has had to take time from work to attend this meeting. The frustration that comes from that, in combination with them being told by a practitioner that the way they handle disagreements is inappropriate and needs to be changed, may not be effective. The family member could see this as unnecessary and not a means to resolve conflict. I’m curious as to whether this practice can be effectively implemented when the school in collaboration with the community needs to reform as a whole.
I am not saying that the school needs to solve community issues and disagreements. What I am asking is, how can a community effectively mediate a situation when the community itself doesn’t buy into the practice of mediation? To me, this is a clear example of how restorative justice in the school setting is specifically being used to target conflict and not change the culture of the school as a whole.
Ultimately, society needs to change how we interact with others in order for practices such as this to be successful. However, in the school system, teachers and other faculty must be trained in cultural competency, biases, and basic understanding and empathy skills to be able to use this form of mediation in schools. Families must be well informed of the practices we use as a school so that they fully understand how the school community operates. That way they can buy into the idea of restorative justice as well.
In a recent Let’s Talk Bruh podcast episode on restorative justice, it was mentioned that a safe space with trust needs to be established and the harm needs to be met with less punitive punishments so accountability can be accepted. Most schools operate in a system where harm has occurred and punishment is given. Yet with the lack of information and understanding of restorative justice, my school in particular is using it as a random activity with the parties involved not really knowing what they are doing. This leaves the individuals confused as well as less confident in the behavior not occurring again. Restorative justice can be a great tool … once we figure out how to retrain our mind from crime and punishment to accountability, trust, and community.
— Marie A. Hall, MEd, MSW, is a school social worker for Stafford County Public Schools. She currently collaborates with other school personnel to curate Social Emotional Learning activities and districtwide crisis management programs.
Strang, H., Sherman, L. W., Mayo‐Wilson, E., Woods, D., & Ariel, B. (2013). Restorative justice conferencing (RJC) using face‐to‐face meetings of offenders and victims: Effects on offender recidivism and victim satisfaction. A systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 9(1), 1-59.