Restorative Justice in Schools: Restoring Relationships and Building Community

Volume 18 No. 4


The word “discipline,” as originally understood, means to educate, to instruct, and to correct.  It is ironic that in our schools the meaning of this word has lost its traditional moorings and slid into being equated with “chastise” and “punish.”  This change in understanding is reflected in the ways many of our schools, especially in the public sector, have shaped their strategies for imposing “discipline” within their halls.  

These now conventional approaches to discipline in our schools, however, do not work—in two ways.  First, they notoriously fail to create the order and peace they are intended to promote.  Second, they fail to use the incidents or behaviors that trigger their invocation as opportunities to educate in the broadest sense of that term.  They do not encourage teachers and students to ask why the conduct at issue occurred; they fail to help teachers and students understand either the sources or the full range of effects of that conduct on everyone (including the student who engaged in the conduct); they fail to teach how to explore these important life questions; and they fail to demonstrate how much can be learned and how much connection can be forged through the way in which the school community goes about exploring and addressing the kinds of problems to which a system of discipline is responsive.  

These shortcomings and missed opportunities surface in bold relief when we see how much can be accomplished in the arena of discipline through a well-designed and fully supported restorative justice process.          

The Effect of Zero-Tolerance Systems

Systems that feature zero tolerance and that emphasize punishment can engender fear, and fear can restrain misbehavior—in some students some of the time.  However, studies of the incidence of repeat offenses under these systems suggest that “fear-deterrence” very often fails.  Schools with high suspension rates also have high repeat offender rates.          

Moreover, the axe of intolerance falls disproportionately on minority students:  One study reported that in 2008, “[n]early one in four black male students in Chicago public schools was suspended . . .  a rate that is twice as high as the district average.”[1]  A report from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that Hispanic and African-American students make up nearly three quarters of students involved in school-related arrests or cases referred by school authorities to the police.[2] 

The fact that minority students are appreciably more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended or expelled from public schools, and appreciably more likely to be arrested for conduct occurring on school grounds, feeds cynicism and alienation in the larger minority communities. This can drive a wedge between educators and both parents and community leaders, making it much less likely that they will work together in common purpose to interrupt the pipeline between public schools and prisons.           

Zero tolerance systems also inflict considerable damage on education.  When a student is suspended or expelled, his education is suspended or expires.  The Coalition for Juvenile Justice found that a student who is suspended just once is three times more likely to drop out of school than a student who has not been suspended.[3] At the same time, when a troubled student is no longer in the system, teachers and other students lose the opportunity to learn from and about him or her.            

Despite the distressing facts described here, none of which are lost on educators, zero tolerance systems remain in place because so many educators see no viable alternative. The restorative justice paradigm hopes to change that—and has taken some encouraging first steps toward doing so.             

I have helped guide the integration of restorative justice processes into the discipline (as opposed to disciplinary) systems of two public schools in Berkeley, California: Rosa Parks Elementary School and Longfellow Middle School. This experience has shown me, educators, students, and parents that this radically different kind of response to conduct that violates school rules, or to problems that threaten to lead to such conduct, presents an alternative that, in many cases, not only can better advance the “peace and order” objectives of conventional systems, but also can contribute significantly to the life learning of both students and teachers.             

Restorative justice enhances social and emotional intelligence—the ability to identify and navigate emotions within oneself and with others.  It also sensitizes participants to the value of relationships within and between social groups, and it strives to teach responsibility, accountability, honesty, empathy, and the satisfactions provided by work.           

Toward these ends, restorative justice first introduces students, teachers, and administrators to listening.  An offender listens, often for the first time, to people harmed by his conduct.  He hears how others have experienced the consequences of his conduct.  The offender is exposed to their hurt and their confusion.  Then, often for the first time, the offender experiences those people listening to him—and he feels them trying to understand.  Then, he is asked to contribute to the process of fashioning an appropriate response to the situation that his conduct has created.  His ideas are taken seriously.  He is taken seriously.  He owns up.  He is a real player in the real world. All for the first time.

Experience with Restorative Justice in East Bay Public Schools          

Restorative justice works. There has been a seventy-five percent reduction in rates of suspension in the Rosa Parks Elementary School since restorative justice was implemented as an alternative model for discipline. At Cole Middle School, the suspension rate dropped from 30.3 to 10.3 percent.  The forty percent decrease in recidivism at Cole was even more impressive.[4]            

Despite these very positive statistics, when we take restorative justice principles and processes into schools, we must be careful not to overpromise what we will deliver.  Restorative justice processes cannot engineer fundamental changes either in underlying socio-economic conditions or in the chemical or genetic makeup of individuals.  Restorative justice cannot recast past history or redistribute its effects, but restorative justice processes can do good and can do a lot better than the classical zero-tolerance model.         

The restorative justice approach may be especially well-suited to students who are in their early and middle teens.  It also might have extra promise for students who have families in which listening is not common, or for students, who, for all practical purposes, have no family.  Students in their teens are developmentally programmed to test boundaries.  They are driven from within to explore themselves and their environment by pushing against restraints, and they are still in the process of maturing socially and emotionally. Their capacity to foresee consequences and to worry about others is not fully developed, apparently by biological design.  Perhaps because they are virtually impelled to push, they feel that being pushed back is unfair—especially when the pushback comes from authority figures who are, by teenage presumption, unsympathetic. The boundaries set by authority figures thus breed frustration, sometimes redoubling the students’ impulses to test. And when their testing is greeted only with severe punishment and efforts to shame, as in zero-tolerance systems, they are deeply alienated.                      

This context is the source of both the unique challenges and the deep rewards that await the restorative justice practitioner who works with teenagers.  The first and perhaps greatest challenge revolves around the centerpiece of the restorative justice approach: listening.  How do we induce a teenager who has broken some rule or caused harm to another person to listen to what others say about how they have experienced the consequences of the teenager’s conduct?  How do we persuade this teenager that asking him to listen to these words is not just a more oblique method of shaming?              

These questions highlight the extreme importance, in the school setting, of teaching all participants, thoroughly and in advance, about the full range of purposes of the restorative justice process and, even more important, what the whole process with all of its components will include.  Many teenagers will assume that a disciplinary process involves communication only in one direction: from an unsympathetic authority figure down to an adolescent.  Many will also assume that the imposition of punishment or constraints will be accompanied by no explanation: “You will do this because I told you to.”           

As a result, it is especially important to explain to a teenager why she is being asked to listen to the people who have been affected by her conduct—and to emphasize that these same people are participating in this process not just because they want her to understand things from their experience, but also because they want to listen to and learn from her.  The affected people will listen intently and openly when the process moves into its second stage.  The listening and the learning will take the shape of a circle—and the process will not be complete until it has come full circle.             

Making this clear is especially important when the victims in the restorative justice process are teachers or other adult authority figures.  The teenage offender is very unlikely to perceive such people as victims at all—and will have to be shown that the adults really want to listen to and learn from the teenager.             

The first thing the leader does in a restorative justice circle is listen. It is impossible to overemphasize how important it is for the leader, at the outset of the process, to model listening by actually listening to the students and to everyone else involved in the process. It is often easy for adults to tell students what they did wrong and what they need to do to “fix it.”  However, when students see an adult leader of a restorative justice circle actively listening, being engaged, and respecting their stories, students find it much easier to follow suit—and are much more comfortable being reminded to listen actively.  

In my experience, listening with a visibly open mind and a true desire to understand can significantly reduce the “credibility” deficit that might otherwise accompany an adult circle leader. Many students enter a conversation with an adult, or a peer with a very different background, assuming that they will not be understood or heard. A young person might think, “Why should I listen to you? You are obviously so different from me [in race, background, education, etc.] that you cannot possibly know the first thing about me or the kind of life I have had.” A leader’s genuine listening can be an important first step in reducing the barriers that such assumptions create and can open students’ minds to seeing connections with other people that they otherwise would never appreciate.           

Feeling safe and supported is another very important component of the restorative justice process, which is why we may include people in our circles who have experiences that are much closer to the experiences of the participants than the leader’s experiences are. To help victims or offenders feel safer or more supported, or to give them more confidence that they will be able to communicate their perspectives and experiences, we sometimes invite to our circles friends or relatives of participants, or people from their community.  If a victim or an offender believes that she is seen in a particularly positive light by a cousin, sibling, or grandparent, the presence of such a person in the circle can encourage the participant to hold on to that image of herself during the process.  Holding on to a positive self-image can improve an offender’s openness to accountability and empathy.             

The presence of people who are close to a participant also can help her feel acknowledged and validated and can even encourage her to feel a sense of self that is not defined by the specific conduct or events that led to the restorative justice process.  We want participants to feel that their person, their experiences, and their circumstances are recognized without being judged.             

Training in restorative justice, or first-hand exposure by participation in its processes, can also dramatically affect the way in which some teachers and administrators understand the implications and effects of their interactions with students.  Some educators assume that respect should flow only in one direction: from the students to the adults. Restorative justice, however, can expose educators to the constructive power of reciprocal respect.  Restorative justice can teach teachers to learn—from others and about their students. It can cause faculty and administrators to pause before reflexively resorting to the simple imposition of punishment.  It can help those in authority see not only that there is another way, but also that their old ways are part of the problem.  It can encourage an openness and flexibility in responding to problems that promotes creativity and elicits positive reactions from students. As a result, restorative justice programs can provide insight and tools to all members of the educational community, thus improving its health from multiple directions.  

Challenges in the School Setting to the Restorative Justice Model           

In a perfect world, restorative justice in schools would not be viewed as or confined to a “program.”  Instead, it would reflect a pervasive paradigm shift—a whole new way of using conflict or misconduct as an opportunity to teach and to learn as well as to promote connection and community.  A few schools may be bravely approaching this new world now, but there are many obstacles to restorative justice spreading rapidly and deeply within public education.         

One fundamental barrier is the feeling in some educators, some political leaders, and some parents, that restorative justice is too “soft” to work.  People who hold such views do not understand the demands that restorative justice makes on participants and have a far too narrow vision of what constitutes success.  For many students, full participation in a restorative justice process is much more difficult and burdensome than conventional forms of punishment.  It is easier simply to be suspended, or to serve time in detention, than to confront the consequences of your conduct and the people your actions have harmed, and then to help construct a remedy or response for which you will be responsible.          

When a student disrespected and offended his teacher at a middle school in Berkeley, he was told that he would be required to participate in a restorative justice circle with that teacher.  The student resisted and requested detention instead.  When asked why he would rather have detention, he responded, “I don’t want to face my teacher and in detention all I have to do is sit there for an hour and I’m done.”  Like many people, this student did not want to face the person his conduct had hurt.  It is much easier never to have to face what one did.  This is why restorative justice, in reality, is a much tougher consequence than many conventional forms of punishment.          

Another barrier is rooted in the attitudes of the administrators and teachers who believe that they need not respect students as individual human beings and have a right to select the form of punishment for misconduct simply because they are the adults, or because they are in positions of authority. While such attitudes are by no means pervasive in public schools, they are not as uncommon as we might hope.           

On more practical (but no less significant) levels, challenges facing restorative justice in schools arise out of severe budget pressures and time constraints felt by teachers and administrators.  Moving restorative justice into a school takes time and consumes financial resources—and just the thought of being asked to do something more immobilizes some educators.  In fact, investing in restorative justice can, over time, reduce demands on teachers and administrators, but finding the resources for the initial investment is a real challenge.  This is especially true because for restorative justice to be successful in schools, (1) it needs informed support from faculty and administration, (2) it must be administered in a manner that every time an occasion for its use arises, it is begun very promptly, and (3) it must be well integrated into and coordinated with a comprehensive plan for discipline that includes additional kinds of responses to particularly serious forms of misconduct.             

These are formidable challenges, but rising to meet them, over time, promises to yield extremely rich rewards for our students, our teachers, our schools, and our communities.


[1] Sarah Karp, Black Male Conundrum, Catalyst in Depth, May/June 2009, at 4, available at .

[2] Kimberly Hefling, Report: Minority Students Face Harsher Punishments, Associated Press, March 7, 2012, available at .

[3] Karp, supra note 1, at 4.

[4] See Jon Kidde & Rita Alfred, Restorative Justice: A Working Guide for Our Schools (2011), available at .




Lisa Abregú, M.A., is the former restorative justice coordinator at SEEDS Community Resolution Center in Berkeley, CA and is now working in Peru on a project to bring restorative justice to the schools. Lisa has been working in the field of social justice and community development for over ten years.  Lisa worked in Ghana at the Buduburam refugee camp running conflict resolution trainings and doing mediations for a former child soldier organization. Lisa attained her masters from The University of Queensland in the Political Science Department with a focus on international relations and conflict resolution. Lisa was then granted a scholarship for a graduate certificate in peace building and conflict resolution at the European Peace University in Austria. She can be reached at




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Federal Judicial Center
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Mediation Training & Consultation Institute
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