We Don’t Have to Wait for Permission to Create Restorative Model Schools

The state of our schools today is a serious problem. Issues such as low achievement, lack of diversity, high dropout rates, and poor teacher morale are serious. However, traditional models of school improvement are not working. Many schools across the nation are struggling to survive, and they have received no help from the current system. One answer to the general problem of poor schools has been to create a new system of schools based on the ideas of restorative justice.

Restorative practices within schools are currently being recognized as a critical asset for students with behavioral and other developmental challenges. Restorative practices, which are based on the premise that everyone is connected and therefore has a responsibility to be accountable for the harm they cause, are helping students learn important life skills and retain a sense of ownership of their learning. This is a powerful shift in how we understand education and the potential for change that it can inspire.

For those unfamiliar with the term, restorative justice (RJ) was developed to address the social, emotional, and intellectual needs of children who have been caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline. It can be likened to the military’s warrior ethos, where individual accountability is central to the mission, and the needs of those who serve are placed above all other needs. RJ is different from traditional discipline in that it recognizes the harm that can be caused to an individual as a result of the use of force, and is designed to meet the needs of the victim, rather than the offender.

word-image-1407 If we are to end the systemic racism and other biases that are woven into the fabric of our education system and into every school building, we must pursue sweeping changes in many areas. To achieve this, we must share best practices and work to develop exemplary schools that can serve as beacons for other schools across the country. It is important for us to realize that, to a large extent, we do not have to wait for legislators or school boards to give us the green light. We have the knowledge and experience in the ranks of teachers and students to guide them.

Yes, additional funding, vocal support and legislative support would be welcome. But we need to understand that people within the system are generally reluctant to take the initiative for radical change because their position of power is sometimes threatened. Reforms come from the top down. The fundamental changes come from below, from the local population. And we are. If we want to do our part to eradicate systemic racism, we must start with school leaders and a critical mass of staff who are willing to truly serve the children and families in our districts.

By working in our communities across the country, using all of our experiences and then sharing what we have learned from our practices, we can create these model schools in communities across the United States. To achieve this, we must consider at least these four areas of school and academic culture:

  • Teaching – what is taught and how do we teach it. We need to move away from standard curricula, which are often obtuse and test driven, and from traditional teaching methods to culturally appropriate curricula. In practice, this means that the content reflects the history and culture of students in your communities and that students are taught in a way that engages them and motivates them to learn. BIPOC youth deserve nothing less.
  • Evaluation – how do we measure what we have learned. We must break the destructive spiral of standardized tests, which measure only a limited range of intelligence and deprive us of valuable learning time with their drill-and-kill lessons. We need to move to a wider use of performance-based assessment (PBA), where our pupils learn to research, write and present their findings orally to a group of staff, parents and peers.
  • Safety – how do we keep our schools safe. We should aim to replace the police in schools (armed or not) with a cohort of peacekeepers who are an integral part of the school community. These peacekeepers are trained in public safety techniques such as verbal de-escalation, restorative justice circles and martial arts.
  • Organisation and relationships – how our schools are structured and how we treat each other. We must move away from relationship models rooted in the hierarchical and competitive nature of our traditional buildings. Instead, we must run our schools as a respectful collaboration of equals. We need to transform our schools from alienating institutions for many of our students and families (poor/immigrant/black/latino/autochthonous, etc.) into caring and inclusive communities where everyone is fully respected.

Transition from punitive to restorative systems

Although I have gained experience in all of these areas over the years, I have spent the last 16 years using the theory, practice and structures of restorative justice to make my/our schools safer and change the way everyone works together. Whether working as the dean of my school, East Side Community in Manhattan, or leading a pilot restorative justice school initiative at the New York City Department of Education, I’ve learned a lot about how to change a culture through this indigenous, tradition-based approach to harm, healing, and life in general.

I suggest that we broaden our vision of what it takes to move from a punishment-based school to a recovery-based school. This paradigm shift occurs in two phases: Rather than trying to catch the bad guy and impose punishment in the form of detention, suspension or expulsion, a restorative approach is taken:

  • Help the person(s) who caused the damage to take responsibility for their actions.
  • Work in a circle with the person(s) and people harmed to get emotional and physical reparations.

Restorative justice not only for students but also for adults We don’t usually go this far. And, if done right, it can help solve many problems. But this does not change the culture of the school as a whole because it only affects individual students.

Adults can also cause harm

Most schools will never acknowledge what we all know: Adults do damage too! If we want to change the culture in schools, everyone has to stand up and take responsibility for their actions. Therefore, I propose a third step:

  • Hold our adults responsible for the mistakes and damage they cause.

If we apply restorative justice without holding staff accountable, we reinforce inequality in our building. If we only look at the damage our young people and teenagers are doing, we are in fact criminalizing them. When this happens in schools where the majority of the staff is white and the students are predominantly of color, this limited approach is clearly racist, classist, ageist, and even sexist. This incomplete application of restorative justice may explain why, even in schools where it has been successfully applied with students and the number of suspensions has been reduced, there is still inequality among those suspended.

Across the country, African-American students, students with disabilities, and special education students continue to be suspended at rates two to three times higher than their numbers in the school system. And there is also anecdotal evidence of this persistent discrimination against LGBTQ students. When I ask workshop participants (usually principals and district staff) if debt is a major way to harm schools, their answer always sounds like yes. Based on this, we decided that the antidote is self-reflection and taking responsibility. So, in a more robust version of RJ. Based on this, I propose a fourth step:

  • Create a culture of self-reflection (CofSR) in our schools.

When accusations are not allowed and everyone is encouraged to be self-reflective in all situations, we can identify what mistakes we have made and then work with others to correct them. It is important to note that when we reduce/eliminate blame, we also reduce/eliminate the need of those who have made mistakes to reflexively defend their actions and/or feel guilty about their mistakes. We can adopt a growth mindset and work with the professional team to find new ways to solve problems.

Finally, the fifth step in this paradigm shift from a punitive/reductive approach to conflict to a restorative and community-based approach will be to integrate the culture of self-reflection (SRC) and circles that are an essential part of the RJ approach into the daily life of our schools.

  • Integrate the use of circles and build a culture of self-reflection into the daily life of your school.

Circles can be used not only in the boardroom, but also in classrooms, all types of department and class group meetings, and parent association meetings. Self-reflection especially (and self-reproach never!) can be effective in teacher evaluations, report card discussions (yes, let’s encourage our young people to grow through self-evaluation), and collective discussions about why a particular school policy hasn’t worked as well as we had hoped. Instead of blaming each other, each of us needs to make a thoughtful assessment of the situation, take our share of responsibility and make it right as a team.

All of this is difficult because we have all been taught to fend off criticism, blame others, follow the orders of those higher up in the educational hierarchy, and mind our own business. These attitudes towards life and learning reflect the individualistic and hierarchical values, traditions and beliefs of our capitalist society, which is rife with racism, class prejudice, sexism, ageism, etc. This inequality is entrenched in our schools and all other institutions in American society.

Only by adopting a different paradigm, based on the perspective of the Indigenous community (where we learned most of our restorative practices), can we fully eradicate the systemic inequities that plague us daily in our schools. Thereafter, black, Latino, LGBTQ, and special education students and their families are no longer seen, explicitly or implicitly, as the targets responsible for so many school failures in the United States. On the contrary, the education system is presented as the culprit for the many inequalities we hear about in almost all of our schools. Profound cultural change requires an ongoing effort, every day.

Therefore, to begin this transition, a school must have a courageous leader who is willing to abandon repressive traditions and who has a vision of what an equity-oriented school looks like. With a group of employees willing to break the shackles of school hierarchy and routine, you can get the vast majority of adults and students in your building behind your cause. You will then have a solid foundation to transform the school from an alienating/repressive institution to a caring and egalitarian community.

We have also begun to use culturally sensitive teaching, outcome based assessment and a peaceful approach to school safety. We must do this because times demand fundamental changes. The COVID pandemic and the pandemic of police killings have exposed the racist, sexist, classist, and xenophobic biases embedded in American society. Organizers and abolitionists in each region/walk must work together to create popular alternatives to the status quo. The future of our country depends on how we meet this challenge – and if we commit to a complete paradigm shift, we can change our outcomes. Our children deserve nothing less.

Photo: Getty Images Signature, licensed from Canva.The first step in creating a restorative model school is making the decision to do it. Restorative practices are not only a shift in thinking and practice, they are also a shift in the way we define education; not just the art of teaching, but the process of teaching itself. One of the biggest challenges in implementing restorative practices is getting buy-in from both teachers and administrators.. Read more about educational posts for instagram and let us know what you think.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you implement restorative practices in the classroom?

Restorative practices have been promoted for decades, but many educators are still struggling to implement them in their classrooms. In an interview with Restorative Practices in School, Jim Cummins, the lead author of the Restorative Practices in School report, said that “restorative practices don’t belong in the school system. It doesn’t belong in our schools. It doesn’t belong in our society. It belongs in our communities.”

He cited the high turnover of staff, the lack of training for educators, and the lack of understanding of the implementation of restorative practices as key reasons restorative practices have been hard to implement in schools. In recent years, restorative practices have become more common in education. They are used in order to transform the way schools work and foster a culture of responsibility and ownership for each child and every student. Restorative practices are an integral part of a school’s culture and its approach to teaching and learning.

This approach helps teachers, students and parents to recognize the impact that negative interactions, attitudes and behaviors can have on the learning environment and to work together to make positive changes for the better.

When would you use restorative practices?

Unfortunately, many of the schools in America may be on the wrong track when it comes to education. The United States is the only developed nation in the world that does not require school districts to hold restorative justice practices—or view school as a place for social justice—or even to embrace a restorative justice approach to discipline. And this is an area where we know that there is a significant payoff.

Studies have shown that schools that adopt restorative approaches—where kids are held accountable and given alternatives to engage in respectful behavior or be disciplined, rather than being punished with suspensions and expulsions—have higher graduation rates and their students have better, more positive attitudes about school, feel more connected to their school community, and less likely to drop out One of the most difficult things to teach students is how to manage their emotions, both positive and negative.

With the prevalence of social media, the ability to share and express feelings without fear of judgement has become a reality. This can be both a positive and negative thing. On the positive side, students are able to express their feelings and talk about their problems. On the negative side, they are able to experience the same unfortunate scenarios that have happened to them in real life, and be disappointed, hurt, or even bullied by other students.

What is restorative practices approach?

What is Restorative Practices Approach? The idea of Restorative practices is to help community members explore the causes and effects of incidents related to power and domination, and to help them recognize the common elements among their own and other people’s histories of being victimized. This developed from an understanding of the links between history and identity, and a recognition that people need to find their own paths toward solutions. The paradigm of Restorative practices is grounded in the idea that the individual’s voice and identity are paramount, and that these must be honored by social institutions.

Restorative practices is a form of education that focuses on meeting the needs of learners. Restorative practices is a “systematic” approach to creating schools that show a commitment to healing and a deep respect for each child and their families. The results are schools and learning environments that promote the highest levels of student achievement, offer support to students, and help learners develop respect and empathy for others as well as the ability to take responsibility for their own actions.


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