Home Blog What You Think You Know About Restorative Justice Is Probably Wrong

What You Think You Know About Restorative Justice Is Probably Wrong

Last week we ran a piece written by a mother whose experience with restorative justice was a horror story. Readers responded in large numbers to the piece, largely because it resonated personally with them. But it doesn’t seem fair to allow the terrible implementation of restorative justice to define what it is—and what it isn’t (or at least what it shouldn’t be.)

Melissa Ugarte is an expert in Restorative Practices—I had been using the term “restorative justice” and she rightly reminded me that Restorative Justice and Restorative Practices are often used interchangeably but are actually quite different. Restorative Justice takes place in the criminal justice system in response to a crime. Restorative Practice is used in schools for climate and culture enhancement. The distinction is an important one.

I first “met” Melissa in a Twitter thread about school discipline and restorative practices in the wake of the now recanted story of a student who had been pinned down and had her dreadlocks cut off by three male classmates. Melissa’s tweets contained helpful information and her candor was refreshing in the discussion of a complex topic that has been known to go off the rails quickly on Twitter and in real life. 

It wasn’t until I clicked on her Twitter bio that I discovered that Melissa lives and works in my state of Rhode Island. She is the founder of The Educated Edge, an organization dedicated to supporting schools in the hard work of nonviolent crisis prevention intervention and restorative practices training and coaching. I reached out to her privately to ask if she would be willing to help us better understand Restorative Practices—what it is, what it isn’t, and what it actually looks like when done well. 

I posed all of the questions below and I am grateful to Melissa for taking the time to answer them for us.

Q & A

If a parent had just heard that her child’s school was going to be implementing a Restorative Practices model and wanted to understand it in simple terms, how would you explain it?

Simply, I would explain it as the school’s new communication philosophy. Restorative practices is made up of verbal interventions that primarily focus on how to intentionally strengthen peer and adult connections. It also provides students and adults strategies for repairing relationships with each other after mistakes have been made. 

Restorative Practices has gotten a bad rap in part because of schools and districts that have begun substituting restorative practice for consequences. Can you tell us if you’ve seen that happen and explain why it may be happening? 

Unfortunately, I have heard of schools that replace detentions or suspensions with simple conversations. This is negligent and happens for a couple different reasons. 

The most common reason is improper training. There is sometimes a misunderstanding that restorative practices is a mushy-gushy conversation that is set out to replace discipline. This is far from the truth. Proper restorative training explicitly teaches educators that restorative interventions are used in collaboration with consequences to make sure that conflict has been properly discussed, and after suspension, students return to school with a safe reintegration.

Secondly, some school administrators feel pressured by the district or state to reduce suspension rates quickly. This likely happens because research shows that students who are suspended out of school are more likely to get in trouble with the law—and also because no district wants to be the subject of an investigation by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) because of their suspension rates. In an effort to save students from outside troubles and also avoid scrutiny from the OCR, administrators convince themselves that they can control highly challenging behaviors in school. This is a problem because it teaches students that there are no real repercussions for risky misconduct and it also shows educators that their emotional and instructional needs are not valued. Additionally, eliminating suspension puts stress on other families because they begin to feel that their child’s school is a haven for poor behavior. 

What does “restoration” mean in the context of Restorative Practice? 

If we feel a sense of belonging to individuals and the community, then we will try to purposely avoid making mistakes that hurt people. We are human beings and sometimes we unintentionally may still cause others harm. “Restoration” means that students and adults have a vested interest in one another and do their best to fix relationships after things have gone wrong. Even after a consequence has been administered, the fracture of the relationship—and all that goes along with that— remains unhealed. 

Can you describe what someone would see/hear if they walked in on a restorative circle that was being done well? (Who would be in the room, what would be happening?)

There are two kinds of restorative circles, proactive and responsive. Proactive circles are facilitated to discuss fun, student interest, or academic topics. Responsive circles are facilitated when minor misbehaviors need to be discussed within the classroom.

In observing proactive circles, someone would hear the facilitator ask a fun, simple question that would allow the rest of the group to playfully engage and share with one another. An observer would see smiles and hear laughter and would feel a sense of belonging because similarities and differences were accepted.

In observing responsive circles, someone would hear the facilitator ask a question about an issue that needs to be resolved within the classroom. An observer would see students and adults seriously engaging with each other and would hear discussions on how a particular behavior might be affecting the learning community. As a class, participants would also suggest ways to reduce or eliminate that disruptive behavior.

What do you think is the most common myth about RP? Where do you think it came from and what will it take to dispel it?

I believe the biggest myth amongst educators is that they believe restorative practices is a high vulnerability, “feelings” activity, where educators and students (in the mist of challenging moments) sit in a peace circle singing kumbaya while asking each other, “how did that make you feel?” If restoration is done right, the proactive conversations focus on comfortable topics that initiate people’s thoughts or preferences. Responsive conversations are tough, highly structured questions that focus on what needs to change in the classroom. Restorative practices is not meant to be emotionally intrusive, nor is it an activity where we stick our noses where they do not belong.

I believe this myth derives from poor training and it will take really good training for educators to “unlearn” some of these misconceptions.

What would you say to a parent or student who have a negative opinion of RP because of a bad experience they’ve had with it? What argument would give you the greatest chance of convincing them to give it another chance?

I would say “I’m sorry”. Restoration is meant to efficiently help with situations, not to make them worse. A true restorative program considers students and parents as partners, working with each other in building safe and caring schools. Restorative schools also provide training to students and parents so that everyone can understand the process and use the same language.

For parents who have children in “restorative” schools, please ask your school leaders where they received their training. Training should be delivered by the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) or a partnered agency that possesses a training license agreement with them. If preparation does not lead back to IIRP, express your discomfort to participate and demand proper training for your student’s educators. 

Can you share a specific example of when you’ve seen RP work really well? Include as much detail as possible.

Many years ago, I worked with a teacher who briefly took her watch off to adjust the band and distractedly put the watch down on her desk. Upon realizing that the watch was stolen, the teacher requested my assistance in leading a conversation with the student she suspected of taking it.

The 9th grade student and I sat with each other for a few minutes as I explained the severity of the situation. I conferenced called his mother and explained that her son was about to be questioned regarding a stolen watch. I shared that the teacher wanted to join the conversation to help seek the truth as well. The student proclaimed his innocence but agreed to participate so I began to ask the educator a series of restorative questions: 

What did you think when you realized what had happened? The educator shared she immediately panicked and felt bad for having to accuse a student of something so horrible. What impact has this incident had on you and others? She felt sick to her stomach because her mother gave her the watch before she passed away. What has been the hardest thing for you? She explained that she just wanted it back because she couldn’t imagine not having that one memento that meant so much to her. What do you think needs to happen to make things right? The teacher disclosed that she simply wanted it back. She also shared that she didn’t want to file a police report but would if the situation couldn’t be resolved reasonably. The teacher also suggested the student might have to provide compensation if the watch wasn’t returned.

I then asked the student’s mother the same four questions while the teacher and student listened. She immediately shared disappointment and embarrassment for her child’s behavior because she raised him with values and pleaded for the watch to be returned. She cried while sharing that she’d have to pick up extra shifts at work to pay for the watch because her son was too young to work.

Immediately upon hearing his mother cry, the student reached into his pocket and placed the watch in front of the teacher.

The student sat there visibly upset and I began to ask him a series of different restorative questions. 

What happened? He noticed the teacher place the watch on a desk. The student quickly walked over, popped it on his wrist, and pulled down his sleeve to hide it. 

What were you thinking at the time? He said he wasn’t thinking. It was his first time stealing from a teacher and he didn’t think he would get caught. 

What are you thinking now, especially after hearing your teacher and mother? He felt disappointed in himself because he didn’t realize how important the watch was to the teacher. He was also upset that he stole from his favorite teacher. 

Who has been affected by what you have done? In what ways? He understood that his teacher felt upset and his mother felt ashamed. 

What do you think you need to do to make things right? He knew he made the right decision to return the watch and promised to not take anything that didn’t belong to him ever again. He also knew that he was going to spend a day on suspension and suggested to return with a descriptive letter of apology.

Upon the student’s return from suspension, the teacher and student were able to resume their solid relationship and the student was not caught stealing for the rest of his high school experience. This is restorative practices; it fixes situations, one relationship at a time.

What Do You Think?
Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a former educator and elected school committee member and the chief editor of this site, Project Forever Free. She is also a senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She blogs at Good School Hunting and occasionally writes for other outlets including Scary Mommy, The 74, and The Hill. She is the mother of three school aged sons who currently attend a district school, a charter school, and a private school—in 3 different zip codes! Rhode Island is home.

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