Professor Carolyn Boyes-Watson remembers getting a call from distressed administrators at a Boston high school: “We have so many girls fighting,” they said, “we’re picking up clumps of hair in the hallways.”
Students were yanking each other’s hair out while brawling in the school’s corridors and cafeteria, and administrators couldn’t figure out how to make the violence stop.
So they called in Boyes-Watson, a sociology professor at Suffolk University in Boston, to train students and teachers in a conflict-resolution practice known as restorative justice. Drawing from Native American traditions, the concept uses ritualized dialogue to try to mend broken communities. Participants gather in circles to try to resolve problems through discussion, rather than retribution.
Across the country, more and more schools are turning to restorative justice as they realize that traditional disciplinary measures — suspensions and expulsions — often don’t deter misbehavior, but can instead set troubled students up for failure by further disengaging them from school.
While traditional justice systems are based on punishing perpetrators (usually by ostracizing or isolating them), restorative justice focuses on healing the harm that has been inflicted — personally and community-wide. Restorative justice programs in schools seek to establish cultures of openness, communication and respect.
Boyes-Watson helped the Boston school set up a practice in which groups of students and teachers met regularly to discuss problems while sitting in a circle. “The kids absolutely take to the circle immediately,” Boyes-Watson says. “They treat each other better. They’re kinder to one another. They feel a sense of belonging and connection. It’s really quite simple. … It’s a small intervention that makes such a powerful difference.”
The effect was transformative. By the following year, the school had solved the problem of girls fighting — no more brawls in the halls.
With similar results being reproduced in other schools, restorative justice is catching on nationwide: Schools in California, New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Illinois and Minnesota are using the practice. Even the federal government is getting on board.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration released new school discipline guidelines asking administrators to move away from zero-tolerance discipline and begin using alternative measures like restorative justice. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted that suspensions often lead to additional disciplinary action, repeating grades, dropping out and ending up in the juvenile justice system. Restorative justice seeks to change that trajectory, known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
DIVERTING THE PIPELINE
The growth of restorative justice in schools comes in response to the failure of zero-tolerance discipline, which uses removal from school as a punishment. During the 1990s, suspensions and expulsions became increasingly popular, paralleling a dramatic increase in the country’s prison population as a result of the War on Drugs.
Initially, zero-tolerance discipline was focused on the most extreme offenses: guns and drugs in school. “But what happened over the years was that morphed into including more and more things into what were zero-tolerance offenses,“ says Dr. Martha Schiff, a restorative justice expert at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., including bringing nail clippers or butter knives to school.
Not surprisingly, the number of suspensions and expulsions has nearly doubled since 1974.
Disproportionately, students of color have been the recipients of those punishments. Nationwide, while 17 percent of school-age children are black, African-American students comprise 37 percent of suspensions and 35 percent of expulsions. Additionally, black students are suspended or expelled at a rate three times that of white students.
“Kids who should have been in school were being systematically kicked out and winding up in the justice system,” says Schiff. A name for this dynamic emerged — the school-to-prison pipeline — highlighting the parallel failures of school discipline and the justice system, in which African-Americans are disproportionately incarcerated.
Now, as restorative justice takes root in schools, studies are showing that it does reduce suspensions and expulsions — often quite dramatically. Whether the practice addresses the racial disparities in school discipline is a question that requires further study, says Schiff.
Not everyone is sold on restorative justice. Annalise Acorn, a law professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, has written a book-length critique, arguing that the practice can traumatize victims and allow unrepentant offenders to fake their way out of trouble. And Dr. Hilary Cremin, a senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge in England, warns that restorative justice is not a panacea and must be implemented carefully in order to avoid causing more harm than good.
At the moment, however, critical voices are in the minority. “I’ve never seen the momentum and groundswell around it quite like it is now,” says Schiff.
MAKING IT RIGHT
In Oakland, Calif., the entire school district has adopted restorative justice practices, after seeing dramatic results at a single troubled middle school.
In 2005, Cole Middle School was in crisis. Student behavior at the school — located in West Oakland, a low-income, high-crime neighborhood — was out of control despite aggressive disciplinary tactics. The school had a suspension rate nearly five times higher than the district average and was expelling four times as many students.
Fania Davis, head of the organization Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, helped the school implement restorative justice circles. In a single year, suspensions dropped by 87 percent and not a single student was expelled.
“In our first pilot, we were able to completely eliminate violence,” says Davis. Principals took notice, and by 2011 the Oakland Unified School District had hired a district-wide program manager to help administrators and teachers bring restorative justice into their schools.
According to David Yusem, Restorative Justice’s program manager, schools first establish dialogue circles as a regular practice in classrooms. Students sit with their teachers and establish group values, creating a space to connect and speak personally about events in school or in their lives. Circle members talk one at a time — without interruption — passing a “talking piece,” an object indicating whose turn it is to speak.
On their own, dialogue circles have a dramatic impact, says Ina Bendich, of the Restorative Justice Training Institute in Berkeley, Calif. “Eighty-five percent of your problems will be taken care of when you really focus on community building,” she says.
For the other 15 percent of problems, schools use response-to-harm circles, designed to address the aftermath of specific conflicts, like two students fighting, or a student yelling at a teacher. With these, the affected parties talk about what happened and what they were feeling at the time.
“It gives the person who did the harm a chance to make it right, rather than pushing them out of school,” explains Yusem.
Taking responsibility for one’s actions can include things like public apologies or community service, or a modified form of a traditional punishment, such as in-school suspension instead of removal.
Kris Miner, executive director of St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice in River Falls, Wis., says she helped facilitate a healing circle that included parents, students and school staff after a white 11th-grader used the N-word and nearly got into a fistfight with a black student.
As the talking piece went around the circle, one father, a corrections officer, spoke about how damaging racial slurs can be and how, in prison, they can get you killed. A Latina guidance counselor talked about being called a “wetback” and a “spic.”
The circle created an opportunity for reconciliation for all parties involved — a moment that never would have occurred if the offending student had simply been removed from school.
The student who had used the racial slur became more and more emotional as people spoke. “I am so sorry that I said that,” he said, tearing up. “I will never say that word again.”