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New Study Reveals Six Benefits of School Restorative Justice

School-based restorative practices do more than just reduce suspensions.

As data about the ineffectiveness of suspensions and other punitive school disciplinary methods have accumulated and concerns about the school to prison pipeline and mass incarceration have gotten louder and more insistent, schools are increasingly looking for alternative strategies for creating a climate of safety, accountability, and fairness. In this context, more and more school districts are encouraging and sometimes even mandating that schools introduce restorative practices as either an addition to or a substitute for punitive discipline.

School restorative practices vary widely, but most such practices bring together those who were harmed and those who did the harm (along with adults representing the interests of the school community) for the purpose of mutual understanding, self-responsibility, community accountability, repairing of harm (including relationships) and reintegration of the person causing the harm back into the school community.

Despite the increasing prevalence of restorative programs in U.S. schools, there is as yet little research on the impact of such practices in school settings (Evans & Lester, 2013). The majority of the research that does exist compares school discipline records and the number of detentions and suspensions before and after a restorative justice (RJ) program is implemented. Although this information is useful, it is potentially misleading as a measure of RJ effectiveness as suspensions can be reduced through a "suspend less" policy change that is entirely independent of the RJ program.

A new study—Outcomes of a Restorative Circle Program in a High School Setting—used qualitative interviews to identify the benefits and downsides associated with school-based restorative practices, from the perspective of both the adults and the students in an urban high school in Virginia where over 90% of students are African American and over 75% are eligible for free/reduced lunch. Restorative Circles, the specific restorative practice used by this school, was originally developed by Dominic Barter and associates in Brazil. The short video below briefly describes the process:

This post focuses just on the six benefits as reported directly by the interviewed students and adults. With the exception of Bypassing Adults, which was only a benefit reported by students, and Improvements in Academic and Social Achievement, which was only reported by adults, all of the benefits were reported independently by both students and school personnel. The quotes below from students and school staff appear as they did in the original article, with permission from the first author, Lilyana Ortega. The full text has many more such quotes.

1. Ownership of the process/ bypassing adults

Students (but not adults) talked about using the Circle process to work through their conflicts because it was, at least some of the time, better than fighting. Students also talked about using the Circle process without adult involvement.

Me and my friend were playing around in class and we actually solved [a conflict using] the Circle. It was fun but it was serious too and we did it all by ourself. Cause my friend that used to be in the facilitator circle training, me and her we was just playing at first but my other friend, the girl I’ll call my friend and the girl I’ll call my sister, they was arguing about something or whatever. So me and X said, “let’s have a circle.” and then we was playing—we was playing though, and then it actually solved their problem. Now they talk. So we actually did a Circle, all by ourselves. -12th female

2. Interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline

Both students and adults spoke about a shift to less punitive methods of dealing with student conflict. Students discussed that a positive outcome of the RC program was that they were not getting suspended or “locked up.” Similarly, adults explained that a positive outcome of the RC program was not having to give as many suspensions or detentions. This category speaks to the negative consequences of zero-tolerance policies contributing to the “school to prison pipeline”. Students seemed very aware of how the (punitive) methods that the school used for dealing with student conflict often resulted in them being suspended or “locked up.” Students attributed not being suspended or “charged” to the RC program. Similarly, adults stated being less reliant on punitive methods and more willing to talk things out using RC principles.

I noticed that some fights, some arguments, some fights get talked out more, instead of just suspension, instead of just suspending somebody from school, where they get away from their education for like five days, they don’t learn nothing for that whole five days. Instead of doing that [suspensions] you could do a circle and they do the circle they sign the paper, then they go to class, and they become friends again, or they leave each other alone. –11th female

3. Improved relationships

One of the goals of the RC program is to restore relationships to how they were before the conflict. In this case, students and adults talked not only about restored relationships, but also about building better relationships with those with whom they experienced conflict.

Me and this kid [were] about to fight, and I think I, uh, I got in his face. I was upset and, you know, everybody wanted to hype up the situation. It wasn’t like that. I just wanted to get a little closer to see what he was saying. And so, uh, me and him ended up being cool after that [the Circle]. -10th male

I’ve only participated in one circle and it was arguably the most revolutionary thing I’ve ever seen. I mean these girls couldn't walk within 50 feet of each other without, “I can’t believe she’s” you know, and then, now, they talk, they say “hi” to each other. I mean, they literally would walk down the hall and “I’m gonna hit her, I’m gonna you know," and it was just a complete turn around [after the Circle], I think the Circle gave them an opportunity to voice their opinion and then the other heard and voiced their opinion. Then they came to this epiphany that they’re actually more alike than they are different. –Counselor

4. Less destructive conflict

Students and adults identified several different themes related to lessening destructive forms of conflict. These included (1) having new skills/tools and (2) utilizing circles. The numbers in front of each quote correspond to the theme numbers above. Youth talked about learning to address conflict by talking it out rather than fighting it out. Adults discussed learning about and utilizing new tools because of RC and seeing students utilize new tools for conflicts. When adults spoke about the “tools,” they were not necessarily speaking about the circle process but about specific skills from the process, such as using reflection when listening.

(1) It's [the RC program] just really been helpful for me with my friends and things. Like, recently I had a problem with my friends and I just pulled it to the side, I was like, “why this why that, how come this going on?” -9th male

Adults and students talked about how the fact that they were utilizing Circles was in itself an outcome of the RC program. Both groups mentioned seeing their peers using Circles more to deal with student conflicts.

(2) I feel like the administrators have embraced it [Circles]. I know that if there is an opportunity for students to go to the Circles they [administrators], kind of go in that direction…that’s a change because, you know, sometimes the administrators, you know, they rule with an iron fist and “it’s my way” and “we’re gonna handle this discipline situation this way” and she’s [principal] been, you know, able to kind let the circle process play out all of them [the conflicts]. –Administrator

5. Meaningful dialogue

For both students and adults, another positive outcome of RC was meaningful dialogue. Under this category three specific types of benefits emerged 1) understanding and connecting, 2) reducing rumors/boosting, and 3) getting to the actual cause of the issue. The numbers in front of each quote correspond to the theme numbers above.

(1) I feel like everyone can get their point of view across [in Circles]...I think that [RC] is a good program. Um, I think that is a way for people to get—to like—to understand each other so that way they are not just bickering a whole bunch of words and no one is listening, but they’re actually saying something that someone is going to listen to, and then they can relay what someone wants to listen to back and then they will get to an understanding. –11th male

Students also enjoyed talking out their conflicts directly with their peers without having an audience observing and instigating. Adults talked about the “no boosting” outcome as not having peer pressure in the Circles. Students are used to a culture of violence that includes their peers instigating fights. Adults talked about how Circles provide students with a space to talk out their conflict with no peers around to “boost” it.

(2) You can get your point across and you don’t have your friend or whatever in your ear. It’s like you and that person and you can go with your mind and I guess you feel more safer when it’s just y’all two to talk. Cause … if you were around a bunch of people … if you say, “OK let’s leave it alone”, someone else out your crew gonna be like “oh you a punk, you just left it alone” … and then when you up in here [the Circles] it’s like there’s nobody there to tell you. –12th female

Students and adults also enjoyed the positive outcome of getting to the actual cause of the issue instead of just fighting back and forth without even knowing why they are fighting.

(3) These kids that had conflicts were coming back together to be in the same building and sometimes in the same classes, and if it [the conflict] didn't get resolved then—if issues didn't get resolved then they [the conflicts] were gonna come up again. So the idea of having like a no contact contract, that doesn't make sense. I felt like these circles were really geared to get at the bottom of the issue, that—the underlying pieces, the feelings, the conflict. I felt like it's [RC program] very empowering for kids to be able to solve their own problems, to be able to listen…it is a wonderful model to help kids see that there is another way to resolve conflict. –Counselor

6. Academic and social achievements

One benefit that was reported only by adults was seeing a stronger focus on academic and social achievements among students participating in Circles. This category consisted of three themes, (1) maturity in students, (2) better behavior in students, and (3) confidence in students. The numbers in front of each quote correspond to the theme numbers above.

(1) Academically they [the students involved in the RC program] seem more focused um, all of them have gotten jobs, well quite a few of them have gotten jobs. One is actually at X, so their whole mindset has changed, it’s like they’re—they’ve come up a level, you know? And I think it’s about being mature, being placed in a role and I think they’re living up to their role. –Administrator

(2) (3) Well she [the student] just not as “ahh.” She’s a loud and boisterous individual anyway, but is not as, intimidating and, you know, confrontational as she once was, I can see that. And just have that responsibility of having the opportunity to go down and speak, you know, that puts some wind beneath her little wings, you know, made her fly a little higher and that’s good to see. –teacher

Conclusions and Implications

Zero tolerance approaches have not garnered much research support for reducing conflicts or violence (Evans & Lester, 2010; Evans & Lester, 2012). This study provides support for school-based restorative practices as an alternative to zero-tolerance and punitive discipline. Importantly, the findings suggest a variety of benefits that previously received little attention in the academic literature.


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