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Restorative justice is damaging American schools

A 'community-building circle' at a high school in Oakland, California

May 15, 2024 - 11:30am

Hundreds of school districts and more than 18,000 schools in the US have adopted restorative justice policies in recent years, wherein traditional punishments are replaced with efforts at reconciliation between students.

Parents Defending Education published a list this week of each school district in the US that incorporates restorative justice in its disciplinary codes, with such schools representing more than 11 million students in districts such as New York City, Baltimore and San Francisco.

Some time around 2013, public opinion seemed to coalesce around the belief that removing unruly students from the classroom “didn’t work”, in that it failed to solve underlying behavioural issues. Restorative justice holds that suspensions, expulsions and the involvement of law enforcement to punish misbehaving students constitute a “school-to-prison pipeline” that feeds into structural racism. The restorative justice approach seeks to correct this by replacing punishments with preventative measures, often in the form of dialogue and talking circles.

The underlying principle is that excluding students from the classroom doesn’t improve their behaviour or educational outcomes. But with teachers unable to remove disruptive and even violent children and teenagers, it’s rule-following pupils who suffer.

Restorative justice focuses heavily on social issues, particularly race. The restorative justice curriculum of schools in Oakland, California includes “​​talking circles to address race and gender equity issues in a preventive way”, while students are encouraged to explore their feelings about “heterosexual privilege”.

In New York City, the push for restorative justice has brought about new rules making suspensions and expulsions more difficult. The city’s Department of Education requires schools to document three instances of non-punitive interventions in response to a student’s bad behaviour before suspending them, and schools are barred from involving the police over infractions such as marijuana possession. A 2015 memo from then-Mayor Bill DeBlasio laid out statistics on the racial disparities in school disciplinary incidents, and reducing racial disparities in punishments was an explicit goal of the restorative justice plan.

New York’s policies in particular have yielded shocking headlines. Two boys remained in school and were sent to “restorative mediation” and “wellness check-ins” after beating an 11-year old girl and sharing footage of the attack on the internet.

For all of restorative justice’s emphasis on prevention, it’s far from clear that these methods are causing a decline in school violence and behavioural issues. Online teacher forums are awash with complaints about “zero consequence culture”, with some questioning why pupil misbehaviour is “swept under the rug”. Educators are despairing that administrators’ failure to enforce discipline is making classrooms unmanageable and chaotic. All, it would seem, because school leadership teams want to maintain low rates of suspensions and expulsions. “Principals need their numbers to look good,” one forum member claimed. “That’s the bottom line.”


is UnHerd’s US correspondent.

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Samantha Stevens
Samantha Stevens
3 days ago

I am a teacher at a NYS public school. All true. Schools are chaos, just like everything else in the US right now. I fear we could lose really important social safety nets like Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, programs for poor children, because all the Democrats talk about is Protests, Pronouns, and Palestine. Idiots.

OH Conservative
OH Conservative
3 days ago

I’ve never understood the thinking that because more black students are disciplined it is because they are black rather than because they misbehave, like beating up teachers or their fellow students. When someone acts out, that person should be held responsible. So what if they don’t have a father in the home, or their mother doesn’t care if they are criminals, the fact remains they are responsible for their actions.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
3 days ago

“Some time around 2013, public opinion seemed to coalesce around the belief that removing unruly students from the classroom “didn’t work”, in that it failed to solve underlying behavioural issues.”
WHAT? On the contrary, “public opinion” among the majority of the population, especially those with kids in school, has been for many years that removing unruly students from the classroom was exactly what was needed. The only group buying into the opposite idea was the same educational establishment that has destroyed public education.

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
3 days ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

If we put people in charge of education whose goals do not include ordered classrooms, then of course removing unruly students from the classroom “doesn’t work.”

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
3 days ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

You have to understand that there’s the public and then there’s “the public”, and the latter are the ones whose opinions matter. The former don’t count for a hill of beans in today’s culture.

T Bone
T Bone
3 days ago

Words are all just abstract suggestions anyways!

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
3 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

Unwoke S
Unwoke S
3 days ago

As long as you don’t end up in pieces, dear Humpty.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
3 days ago
Reply to  Unwoke S

I’m more Dumpty than Humpty.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
3 days ago

The Humpty Dance is your chance to do the Hump!

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
3 days ago

Wait a minute: some kid bashes a teacher or another student and you don’t call the cops and kick him/her out of school? What the h*ll does race have to do with it? Or are these programs implying that kids of certain races can’t be disciplined like those of certain other races? Sounds, er, racist to me.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
3 days ago

Particularly given the victims of failing schools are disproportionately Black and from economically disadvantaged backgrounds themselves.

Alan B
Alan B
3 days ago

Welcome to USA!

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
3 days ago

Racism is when a white person does something that inconveniences a black person. Defining it any other way is racist.

Hale Virginia
Hale Virginia
3 days ago

Blacks commit a disproportionate amount of the violence in schools as well as society in general in the US. That however is a very inconvenient truth, so we play stupid games and make believe scenarios to pretend that that isn’t happening. Consequently, all of society suffers

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
3 days ago

Yes, this exactly. I was once asked to devise a policy brief to improve classroom behavior without explicitly referencing behavior or discipline because these have racist connotations. Education is an insane asylum run by the inmates.

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
3 days ago

How’s this for an approach? When a student demonstrates that he’s a thug and a danger to his classmates, then expel him immediately. After this has been done to each violent student the result will be a student body that, going forward, would not have disciplinary problems. Just gather the statistics from that point forward. This fixation on keeping everyone in school is the problem. There are young people who simply don’t belong there, and keeping them in school doesn’t serve the purposes of education.

Will Rolf
Will Rolf
3 days ago
Reply to  Erik Hildinger

In the US, school districts are mandated to provide education for every student, if they expel a student, they have to find an education alternative

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
3 days ago
Reply to  Will Rolf

Yes, that’s exactly the problem. The ‘right’ of every child to an education even if they deny other children the ‘right’. I’m so glad I got out of secondary school teaching.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
3 days ago
Reply to  Erik Hildinger

A lot of problem kids have problems and we aren’t dealing with those problems, we’re just moving them around. Keeping them in school doesn’t solve the problem but neither does excluding them into a society that is stacking the odds against Young people without a qualifications. We need more specialist provisions offering practical training to non academic students and more support for young people with actual problems, like those in the care system. As it is, “problem kids” are too much like hard work and too few are willing to deal with a problem that isn’t going away, on the contrary, it’s growing.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 days ago

20% of the kids cause 80% of the problems. Or thereabouts. This is not new nor is it radical. It’s just true. That the 20% is largely populated by one demographic is also true. Pretending otherwise does not change that.
But this is how race hustling works: pander to, condescending to, and strip minorities of all agency. Nothing is their fault. Ever. It has given rise to a class of bad actor called the Dindu Nuffin, as in “he dindu muffin.” Except for rob, assault, shoot at cops, or whatever else. And a compliant media shows these “victims” in years-old pictures. Like they did with the guy who opened fire on cops in Chicago recently.

Giles Toman
Giles Toman
3 days ago

In orc-filled schools, this approach is basically a bullies charter.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
3 days ago

School choice will fix this problem pronto.

Martin Goodfellow
Martin Goodfellow
3 days ago

Are schools set up for, and teachers trained in ‘Restorative Justice?’ It’s a legal practice that needs the law behind it in order to succeed. It isn’t about just having a friendly chat. Assuming otherwise is a recipe for failure.

Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson
3 days ago

The only solution for a parent in such a school is removal. The need for “student-tied payments” is obvious at this point – the property tax payments should be tied to the student. Public schools, which I supported for 60 years, have failed.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
3 days ago

The answer from progressives when their solutions don’t work as promised is that we just need to do more of it.

Kat L
Kat L
3 days ago

‘public opinion seemed to coalesce around the belief that removing unruly students from the classroom “didn’t work”’ I’m not sure if public opinion was ever this prior to the summer of st George Floyd. Obama administration came up with guidelines under the auspices of ‘rethink discipline’ in 2013 probably much more likely to have influenced blue cities than overall popular opinion.’

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 days ago

I first read about restorative justice being used for rapists and their victims. (This was in NYC.) The idea, apparently, was that the rapist and victim would have a “dialogue.” I’m not sure what they expected. Both would be laughing together like best friends within an hour? Women’s groups went ballistic. In fact, everyone went ballistic. Restorative justice, in that case, died. It should die in schools as well.

Ryan K
Ryan K
3 days ago

When I was required to go for my grad degree while beginning teaching, because of the lack of teachers, I was studying teacher empowerment. The reality was student empowerment….once they learned that there was no consequence they needed to fear, then the situation in class was out of control. The administration was indeed more interested in covering their asses then backing up teachers. My immediate boss did try to help mediate or remove troubled students. Deans of which I eventually became one oversaw in house suspensions and tried to mediate where possible. I had an African American counselor for ostensibly a drug program “visit” my class for one period…..her take: every single one of these kids needs psychological counseling. So if NYC schools are in further decline, not a surprise with what is described here. Teachers are up against the breakdown in the family. And in some cases immigrant parents who are loving and well meaning but lack English, and lack the ability to negotiate the schools. Eviscerating the “union schools” in favor of selective privately funded schools is not an answer. There is a telephone directory sized book of schools for parents to study so the charge that they are denied choice makes no sense.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 days ago

There is a point of diseased mellowness and effeminacy in the history of society, at which society itself takes the part of him who injures it, the part of the CRIMINAL, and does so, in fact, seriously and honestly. To punish, appears to it to be somehow unfair—it is certain that the idea of “punishment” and “the obligation to punish” are then painful and alarming to people. “Is it not sufficient if the criminal be rendered HARMLESS? Why should we still punish? Punishment itself is terrible!”—with these questions gregarious morality, the morality of fear, draws its ultimate conclusion. If one could at all do away with danger, the cause of fear, one would have done away with this morality at the same time, it would no longer be necessary, it WOULD NOT CONSIDER ITSELF any longer necessary!

Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil

William Brand
William Brand
2 days ago

Restorative justice just means a mild scolding for a major crime. The victim is denied justice as the thug laughs and prepares a second offense. Expulsion just means that the offender is on a pipeline to adult jail unless he is sent to a reform school. The threat of such a fate works wonders. A better punishment is spanking and not just for children. If a teacher fears to spank a teen, let a policeman do it. Teenagers need to be spanked also. At Bruce MS high school in 1964 I got a spanking as a senior.

Rainer KEIL
Rainer KEIL
2 days ago

A big thank you to Laurel Duggan for this interesting article. I am a total outsider of the system (not teacher, not parent of children, neither U.S.-American nor British) and thus learned quite a bit from it, as I did from Gil Fraser’s of last year (URL.: https://unherd.com/2023/05/restorative-justice-is-a-gift-to-bullies/).
I am not sure if I find everything convicing, though.
Perhaps the concept of restorative justice has to be formulated more clearly.
If it means going away from m e r e l y retributive justice towards a m o r e proportional approach that looks more precisely at the injuries, at the inter-personal aspects and at potentials of sustainable healing, then this does not seem all that wrong to me. Quite the opposite: Restorative justice, an approach followed in other contexts for example by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the end of official apartheid, appears even appealing. Punishment and other sanctions often fail and lead to hiding what happened; if reconciliation works, it can lead to more insight, heal more and have an effect that lasts much longer than punishment ever could.
What Ms. Duggan describes here and Fraser described in May 2023 about British problems might rather be problems of an adequate concept and range of applicability of restorative justice than a basis for an attack against the underlying idea. For an adequate concept, the following questions have to be of importance:
What, if restorative justice fails? Are there prerequisites for it to even have a chance to succeed?
I would suppose, reconciliation only works if the perpetrator or transgressor opens up to seeing and recognising what he or she did and if the victim is somewhat open, as well. Both of these preconditions of success cannot generally be assumed, but both of them are always possible. The readiness to open up cannot be demanded, much less enforced. If this is true, then restorative justice cannot serve as an alternative to sanctions in a l l cases, but might have quite a lot of potential in m a n y .
Therefore:
If sanctions are generally – apart from exceptions – provided for and applied, structures of restorative justice might be offered to perpetrators or persons having committed transgressions as an alternative to hiding (if not yet even suspected) and, in the best case, to punishment. If they do not open up, they have to carry the burden of being caught: the threat of sanctions and, if truth appears, of real sanctions. If they open up, admit, reflect and verbalise what happened, are ready to encounter and be confronted with the victim’s pain or injury and seriously work on compensation and reconciliation, there is a chance (not an automatism) that a body in charge decides on an equivalent to an amnesty from sanctions.
I think, such a structure would have many advantages: It might
 
ensure that accountability for actions is strengthened,
 
encourage that responsibility is accepted,
 
make truth more likely to be told than without (potential) punishment or than with punishment as the only perspective
 
and increase the probability that the advantages of the healing effects of restorative justice can unfold their potential without impunity if it fails.