​Understanding Restorative Justice in Schools

November 04th, 2019

Children and teens are a famously difficult subset of the population to manage. They act out, question authority, and sometimes even treat one other with great unkindness. Just like everyone else, though, students have underlying reasons for this behavior.

For many generations, the actual reasoning behind students’ transgressions has largely been considered immaterial by their schools. Instead, students have traditionally received punishments like detention, suspension, or expulsion for their behaviors.

Restorative justice takes a different approach. Instead of simply punishing a student for a transgression, restorative justice is a means through which to turn that transgression into a teachable moment, and more and more schools are seeing the benefits of this approach.

How Restorative Justice in Schools Works

The idea behind restorative justice in schools isn’t all that difficult to grasp. As opposed to following a students’ misbehavior with an automatic set of punishments, restorative justice follows up with a more investigative series of events.

Restorative justice programs encourage the students who have committed the transgressions to think about what they’ve done. This does not simply mean placing the students in a corner until they’re ready to accept responsibility, it means an active process of reflection to help them uncover the root of what inspired their behavior.

What’s more, restorative justice in school programs will help the students find meaningful ways to make amends for their actions. Usually, this means that the students who have made the transgressions will reach out to the victims of their behavior—whoever that may be—and express the reason they think they behaved in that way, in addition to finding a way to repair the relationship.

Ultimately, restorative justice is about fostering a sense of community and forging strong bonds within that community. That way, when a student does something wrong, it can be made clear that their actions harm their community on the whole as opposed to just resulting in negative repercussions for them as individuals.

This sense of larger responsibility lies at the heart of restorative justice programs’ effectiveness in schools. Rather than preventing unwanted behaviors with the promise of punishment, restorative justice makes schools more inclusive environments that prevent these behaviors through an internal sense of responsibility.

Why Does Restorative Justice in Schools Work?

If the current system of suspension and expulsion sounds a lot like a junior version of the prison system, that’s because it is. The current answer to behavioral issues is to keep kids out of school for some period of time, depriving them of the opportunity to learn, but more importantly doing nothing to ensure their behavior will change once they return.

Very simply, restorative justice works because it flips the script on the situation. Instead of treating students who exhibit behavioral issues like prisoners in training, it treats them like the complex (and still growing) human beings that they are.

What’s more, restorative justice for schools works because it looks below the surface. Just like you wouldn’t treat the pain from appendicitis with a bandaid, persistent behavioral issues simply cannot be remedied with the same, ineffective punishments over and over. Nipping underlying issues in the bud, and bringing them to the students’ attention at a young age, can keep the behavior from progressing to more serious issues in adulthood.

Restorative justice for schools is still an emerging concept, but groups like restorative partners are working hard to make it a more common part of these young communities to give everyone a sense of belonging.

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