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Restorative justice in education – possibilities, but also concerns

Jun 27, 2014

from the blog article by Kathy Evans:

There is a great deal of momentum right now for implementing restorative justice in education. This makes me incredibly excited – and a bit nervous.

Let’s start with the good news! RJ is gaining lots of attention in education. Recently, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education came together to issue a colleague letter alerting schools that they can be cited for disproportionately disciplining students in certain categories. These federal agencies then recommended restorative justice as one way to address disproportionate discipline in schools!

Schools across the nation, from California to Virginia, are moving to replace their zero tolerance policies with restorative justice approaches. Every week, I get notices about school-based restorative justice programs popping up. That’s exciting! Closer to home, EMU has just begun the nation’s first graduate program specifically focusing on Restorative Justice in Education (RJE). It’s a great time to be an educator who is looking to implement RJ!

And it’s about time. More than thirty years of research have demonstrated that punitive school discipline systems don’t work. In most cases, they exacerbate discipline problems and contribute to unhealthy school cultures. The injustices caused by zero tolerance policies in schools are too many to name and have been researched and written about extensively.

For example, we know that punitive discipline policies are disproportionately applied to students identified as visible minorities, students with physical and academic disability labels, and other students who are marginalized because they don’t fit inside certain socially prescribed boxes. We know that students who are suspended and expelled are more likely to end up dropping out of school, being incarcerated, and/or facing unemployment.

So the opportunity to replace zero tolerance with restorative justice is exciting. But it also beckons us to be sure that in our haste to implement RJ in schools, we don’t lose our way. Not all programs that call themselves restorative are indeed restorative. Many are restorative-ish; others have been completely co-opted so that restorative justice terminology is used to rename the detrimental programs they are meant to replace.

For example, having kids wash the cafeteria tables in lieu of suspension may be a better option, but it isn’t necessarily restorative. Initiating a peer mediation program is fine, but let’s not assume that this program aligns with the values of restorative justice. Implementing restorative justice to address behavior without critically reflecting on how curriculum content or pedagogy perpetuates aggression is limiting.

I must confess that I get nervous when I hear about principals requiring their teachers to be trained in restorative justice. Where is the shared empowerment there? How much buy-in do those teachers have? Will they implement restorative practices in ways that align with restorative justice values? Does it make anyone else nervous that many of these teachers are only receiving minimal instruction in what those restorative values are?

Read the full article.

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