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Nine Criticisms of School Restorative Justice

Some concerns come from misunderstanding. Others are legitimate challenges.

What are the criticisms of restorative justice in the school context?

This is an important question for any school or school district considering developing a systemic restorative response to conflicts and rule violations. Below I list (and respond to) some of the criticisms I have heard the most over the past few years. In the case of the last four, these are concerns I myself have, as someone who supports schools in developing restorative systems.

1. It takes too long. This criticism usually refers to the fact that the preparation and actual dialogue can eat up a considerable amount of time, sometimes (if there are many individuals involved) as many as several hours. Punitive discipline typically takes less time, though it should be noted that many schools do engage in a time-intensive investigation process that can either be streamlined or eliminated with a restorative system. But even if RJ takes longer to carry out, to the degree that it is more likely to lead to satisfying outcomes, the time saved by preventing future contact with the so-called discipline system can make RJ much more time-efficient than the alternative.

Wikipedia Commons
Movement is almost always invigorating.
Source: Wikipedia Commons

2. It is too emotionally draining. Well, it’s true that a circle can feel draining, but it’s also true that many students, teachers, and staff are invigorated by circles because they often see each other in new ways and often feel more connected afterward. Movement is almost always invigorating. What tends to be really draining are ongoing conflicts that feel “stuck.” RJ provides a way to get unstuck. I wrote more about this here.

3. Teachers should be teaching, not doing, RJ. It is important (especially for older grades) to have separate spaces and times for learning and for conflict. At the same time, when there is conflict in the classroom, it needs to be responded to or it will escalate. The response can be a plan to engage more deeply at a later time but there does have to be a response. Restorative practices provide teachers with tools to respond in ways that meet both their students’ needs and their own.

4. Restorative justice doesn’t have accountability. If accountability is defined as punishment, this may be true, though many schools are increasingly utilizing a hybrid model that includes both punitive and restorative elements. But accountability is part of the restorative process, too. It’s just conceptualized differently. Rather than being equated with punishment, in restorative justice, accountability takes the form of self-responsibility and various agreements designed to repair harm and make things right. This form of accountability is not soft. To the contrary, it is not unusual for even those who are incarcerated for long periods to report that dialogue with those they harmed was the hardest thing they've ever had to do.

Source: Alpha Stock Images/Creative Common 3
A well-designed, well-functioning restorative system includes documentation of agreements and ways to check in on them.
Source: Alpha Stock Images/Creative Common 3

5. Agreements made in restorative processes are not followed. This is one of the challenges of creating a functional restorative system. A well-designed, well-functioning system will include documentation of agreements and ways to check that they are either being carried out or alternative reparative actions are done instead. Agreements not being followed is feedback that the restorative system is not working optimally and the changes may be needed.

6. Restorative justice doesn’t work. It’s important for both adults and students in schools to be clear about the goals of restorative justice. If adults see it as yet another (perhaps more gentle) way of controlling student behavior, then I would expect students to resent and resist such attempts at control as they resent and resist punitive responses. If, however, both adults and students see restorative justice as a way of sharing power and collaborating to build, maintain, and, when necessary, repair relationships, then the data show that restorative justice does work and “not working” in a particular school is feedback that the current system needs to be tweaked.

Source: Pixabay
In a healthy restorative system, participation is always voluntary. It is not necessary for every chair to be filled.
Source: Pixabay

7. Restorative justice places an unfair expectation on victims/survivors to talk to those who harmed them. It is important that no one is forced to participate in a restorative process if they don’t want to do so. It is also important to understand that those who have been harmed often want to do so because they want those who did the harm to understand the impact of their actions or they want to have dialogue that creates conditions for the harm to stop.

8. Restorative justice places an unfair expectation on victims/survivors to forgive those who harmed them (especially in the context of either sexual assault or actions perceived as racist). It is important that no one is made to believe that they have to forgive. Forgiveness may happen but it’s not a goal of restorative justice. The goals are often defined as mutual understanding and agreements designed to address unmet needs identified during the mutual understanding stage. In cases of sexual or racialized harm, restorative responses are particularly tricky. Here’s a case study about what it might look like, following one such incident.

9. Restorative justice is not actually implemented restoratively. Whether we are aware of it or not, we all have a high value for congruence. We might not prefer an authoritarian, top-down approach, but in a context that explicitly values hierarchy and control (as schools often do), we tend to go along with it. Restorative justice, however, is designed to be community-owned. It is designed to be a space with shared power where everyone has a voice. It is therefore particularly important that it is implemented collaboratively and, more generally, in ways that are congruent with its core principles. When either the process itself or the method through which the school designed the restorative system are forced on people rather than created with them, there is likely to be substantial resentment and resistance.