Sunday, March 26, 2023

Restorative Justice Gone Wrong : One Mother’s Horror Story

In 2015 I started a three-year journey to acquire my Doctorate in Educational Leadership. On top of going back to graduate school, I was a high school principal. It was a job I loved and for which I felt tremendous passion. The high school I led was plagued by a history of low academic performance, discipline issues, attendance issues and low morale among faculty and staff.  I was hoping to introduce alternative measures to address discipline but I also knew that teachers felt that the growing pressure to eliminate suspensions was creating unsafe environments.  

I drew from my own experience teaching emotional and behavioral youth and also worked with a team of dedicated individuals to begin the process of turning around our high school. In the process of growing programs, implementing rigorous curriculum and combating years of allowed behaviors, I began to look into what I thought would ultimately become the subject of my dissertation: Restorative Justice. I was intrigued by the practice—which had grown out of correctional facilities in New Zealand— and saw it as a way to marry my commitment to reducing the school to prison pipeline—by over-suspending—with social emotional teaching and learning. Little did I know that the very practice I had spent a year studying would come back to haunt my family in a profoundly personal way.

For a year, I dove into the research on Restorative Justice, also known as Restorative Practice. I read hundreds of articles, dissertations and thesis papers. I reviewed case studies on Los Angeles Unified and the New York City Schools in an effort to get a historical perspective of how large urban districts had implemented this program. 

The thread that consistently ran through almost all of them was that, by and large, the practice didn’t work or wasn’t working. 

There were a myriad of reasons why. The most glaring reason I found was the enormity of undertaking the roll out of the program throughout an entire school district. The program called upon teachers to stop their core teaching in order to address behavioral issues either in the moment or immediately following the incidents. The training was time consuming and “buy in” from teachers was essential. Most of the training I reviewed was “one and done” in which teachers were left to implement a practice with few resources, or a single person was employed to run the entire program. In addition, I read of districts that had substituted Restorative Justice for punitive consequences as a way to reduce their overall suspension numbers. In a district next door to mine, district leaders bragged about their huge reduction in suspensions because of their Restorative Justice only to see the program fall apart as disruptive students were continuously returned to class without any actual change in their behavior.  It was clear from my research that if a school or a district was not 100 percent committed and fully trained in the program, it could not succeed.

I had been looking forward to rolling out Restorative Justice at the high school I led but changed my mind after the year I spent working to understand it more completely. 

Two years later I moved on to work in a different district in a neighboring state— my kids remained in the district where I had been before. Needless to say I wasn’t thrilled to learn that the district had plans to implement Restorative Justice and hire “Deans of Culture” at the middle schools. Though I was personally skeptical of the plans, I kept it to myself. I would never challenge a school or district’s sincere attempt to better student’s lives. 

My silence ended the evening I received a phone call from my 6th grade son’s science teacher. She asked me if any administrator had contacted me over the last month. I told her I had not been contacted by anyone but inquired as to why she would ask me that. The horror she shared with me still keeps me up at night. 

She told me that my son had been the target of three young boys for a month. The boys would regularly threaten him, call “homo”, “fag”, and “pussy,” steal his lunch money and chase him out of school. They ultimately beat him up. My son’s teacher explained to me that she had gone to the vice principal about all of this—she expressed shock when I informed her that I had not been contacted by anyone from the school. 

I immediately asked my son about all of this— he dissolved into tears and said that he didn’t want to go to school anymore. He said he wanted to die.  

My happy little boy wanted to die. 

I was angry. I sent a strongly worded email to the vice principal and cc’d the principal. I was contacted the next day and told that my son would go through a Restorative justice practice with the three boys he was “accusing” of wrongdoing. Well, I can tell you that I was not about to allow that. 

The idea that my son would sit in a circle with three boys who had tormented him for months made me physically sick. He would have no one there to sit beside him and support him. I had been an educator long enough to know what would happen—I may be cynical but I’m not stupid.

But my son wanted to do it and he asked me to allow it. He said he just wanted the misery at school to end and thought that this restorative justice stuff could work. I was assured that the Dean of Culture was well trained in restorative practice—and my son liked him. So, I changed my mind and allowed it to happen. 

A week later, I received a phone call from the Vice Principal telling me, “I don’t want to alarm you but we had a situation at lunch with your son.” He went on to explain that my son came to him during lunch and “claimed” that the same three boys he sat in a restorative circle with had stolen his lunch money and beat him up. He then said, “your son’s story is very different than the other boys’ story.” I almost lost my mind. I hung up and called the principal. I explained my husband and I would be there the next morning and asked them to review the cameras in the meantime. 

The next morning I had to endure an hour of a vice principal apologizing for what my son had endured. He reviewed the cameras and saw everything my son told him had happened. The school’s solution to my son’s situation was to change his lunch shift—even though all three boys skipped class to come to the cafeteria that day—change two of his classes, and to release my son early from school to “run home” before the other boys got out of class. 

What happened to the aggressors? One was already suspended for assaulting another student and the other two could not be suspended due to the district policy on excessive suspensions for certain groups of students. I, of course, was not supposed to be privy to this information for reasons of confidentiality but when children’s safety and security are at stake, people talk. 

We ultimately pulled our son from the district. I am a career educator and strong believer in public education. But I am a mom first. The school’s handling of my son’s torment and subsequent proposed solutions were unacceptable and there was not a chance I would keep my son in a school where their only way of protecting him was to change his schedule and dismiss him early.  The “restorative” circle he sat in, bravely facing his aggressors, only made him a target for more torment.  

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still believe that restorative justice is a much needed practice but I can’t support the way it is being used as a consequence. If and when it’s implemented well, I’m on board. 

The reality is that theory and practice are very different things. My research of the theory convinced me that I should introduce Restorative Justice in my school but my research of the practice in similar schools and districts had changed my mind. 

The story of my son was further confirmation that I had made the right choice.  

Julia Carlson
Dr. Carlson is the assistant superintendent of the Fall River Public Schools in Fall River, MA. She holds a B.S. from The University of Texas, M.Ed. from The University of Hawaii and an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from Boston College. 


  1. Julia, I recall as a young student, getting bullied, beaten and otherwise degraded by the thugs. It seemed intolerable when I was going through it. I wanted it to stop. I had gone to counseling and testing for years while it was happening. The restorative practice, if implemented well can work. I do see where it is not a be all and go all.

    I like how the circle allowed your son to face these perpetrators in an open situation. I am also glad that they interviewed all the parties and (with your nudging) surveillance technology to get to the truth.

    I’ll keep you and your son in my thoughts and prayers.

    Be well.

  2. Dr. Carlson provides a well balanced piece that speaks to the complexities of Restorative Justice as it is implemented in schools and communities. It is certainly not a one-size fits-all approach. Like most approaches to student behavior many variables impact the outcomes including teacher training and support, administrator training and support, students ages and buy-in and parental support. When these key variables are not in alignment the results can be damaging as experienced by Dr. Carlson’s son. He is fortunate to have parents who were respectful of his wish to try the restorative circle and bold enough to take action when it did not work.

  3. I am going to go old school on you and tell you the bullies parents would have taken the wrath of my outrage. Their time would come and I would let them know it. They just wouldn’t know when. A little cowboy justice is needed at times. The word needs to get out that some folks just don’t put up with their kids being bullied. This mamby pamby crap has to end.

  4. “Restorative Justice” is some liberal-left, lofty, dumbass, and very very dangerous idea. Ever heard of Pavlov’s experiments? Whatever behavior you reward, you’ll get more of it. Same applies to bullies, tormentors, harassers, rapists, other criminals and so on. This mother has been brainwashed and is letting her kid suffer to justify herself. Disgusting.

    • Typical public school nonsense. Your lofty idealism isn’t good enough for your own family. I’ll bet you kept working at your job and continued to foist this twaddle upon other school districts.

  5. First, I am very sorry to hear about your son’s tormenting. Second, as a former school board member, I am not at all surprised by the feckless way in which the school handled it. Finally, what I wonder is why you would continue to stand by a theory which has proven itself unworkable in practice. It seems to me the that the Cardinal Sin of public education today is that proponents of theories continue to insist they work, all evidence to the contrary. Say what you will about “proper training,” “adequate resources,” “teacher buy in” and all the rest of it. Ultimately, they’re just false excuses for why what won’t work didn’t work.

  6. This article entails the use of restorative justice in a school setting between bullies and a victim. What is really interesting to me is that the victim in this case was the child of the previous principal of this school and she explained how she did not want to implement a restorative justice program because she did not think everyone was committed to proper training that RJ requires. After she left her position at the school another principal was appointed and their decision was to implement the RJ practices, and in one particular was involving the previous principals son and a couple of kids that were bullying him. The system and processes did not work in this situation because like the previous principal stated the staff along with everyone else were not committed to properly learning how to successfully use RJ. My biggest takeaway from this article and many others I have read regarding restorative justice and it’s failure is the improper implementation of the process. This improper use is what also brings the stigma around restorative justice and how it is seen as an easy way out. As a restorative justice student I have learned the importance of sincerity and accountability in this process and that is what seems to be lacking in the case of the school in the article. Another equally important aspect of RJ is the need for relationships and a connection, as well as a community to work successfully which also seems to be missing in this case. I think that if all of these aspects were there then this could have been a transformative and healing process for both sides. Without it we see failure and going back to the same habits and mistakes which causes misconceptions. The idea of community praxis explains the importance of understanding for a proper course of action as stated in Blodgett et al., “the cyclical process of reflection and action, and theory and practice that is motivated by a commitment to transformation through social activism” (2008, p.393). In conclusion, I would say that this article once again highlighted the importance of having a connection and community ties with the case in which restorative justice is being applied.

    • Just to clarify, I was not the principal of the school in which my son was a target. I was, however, a principal in the district.

    • “Sincerity and accountability” sound like platitudes unless you can give examples of how these could be practically implemented in the case of the boy and his tormentors.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Recent Posts