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Why Restorative Justice Programs May Fail in Schools

Reverse-engineering sustainability.

Key points

  • Restorative justice programs often fail due to a lack of consistent personnel in the schools.
  • A controversial issue, restorative justice programs are liable to lose grant funding, depending on changing leaders.
  • It will take fundamental commitment and focus to reform how punishment is meted out in our schools.

The pattern of racial disproportionality and the increased awareness of the limitations of punitive responses in schools have increased interest in the potential of restorative justice, which rather than focusing on rules and punishment, instead emphasizes relationships and repair of harm.

Today, an increasing amount of school districts are re-examining their discipline policies and seeking to adopt more restorative responses to violations of school rules and norms, sometimes as a result of state mandates. These restorative experiments have often resulted in significant decreases in punitive discipline metrics but have also revealed a variety of challenges associated with implementation and sustainability. Even when the implementation process is truly collaborative and the restorative infrastructure is carefully built, it can be difficult to keep it all going. I’m aware of several well-functioning or promising restorative systems that collapsed or disappeared, often in a matter of just a few months.

Loss of Key Restorative Justice Personnel

Possibly the most common reason that restorative programs collapse is that they were held together by a key person who then, for any number of reasons (e.g., retirement, maternity leave, spousal relocation, loss of grant funding), leaves the job. When this occurs, it sometimes becomes evident that the system was working effectively in large part due to the relationships that this person built with both students and school staff and their competence and integrity in doing the work.

There is no easy solution to this issue. It is, of course, useful to have a single person who coordinates training, establishes clear expectations, and provides oversight and supervision of restorative responses. It’s a positive sign when students and staff grow to trust this person and turn to them when they have a difficult situation. And yet, when only one person is holding up the system, it’s understandable that it would get destabilized by this person leaving, especially when it has only been around a few months or even a few years.

According to Kevin Pugh, the dean of school culture at the Flagstaff Academy and long-time restorative justice practitioner and trainer, the key is to have multiple staff be involved in restorative practices at the leadership level. Thus, there might be a single coordinator, but a larger implementation team and multiple district administrators who are familiar with and are involved with the decision-making regarding discipline policies and the use of restorative practices. Similarly, robust systems do not rely on one or two facilitators but rather find a way to spread the facilitation among a group of individuals who, therefore, have fewer demands on their time and energy and have the benefit of each other’s advice and support.

Turnover in district or building leadership

School violence, like community violence, is currently one of the nation’s most visible and most divisive issues, and, despite its increased visibility, restorative justice continues to be a counter-cultural approach that is unfamiliar to the majority of administrators and educators. As such, restorative justice is both going to attract political champions and be a lightning rod for criticism and opposition. I’ve seen communities rally to pressure their school district to adopt restorative justice practices and have seen school board candidates campaign for election on the basis of their opposition to these practices. Not surprisingly, school boards, as well as parent groups and teacher groups are often politically divided, with restorative justice serving as a proxy for a progressive ideology, despite the fact that libertarians tend to support community-based systems over centralized ones and conservatives generally value and call for self-responsibility. Such political division and the challenges associated with them are part of contemporary society and not exclusive to restorative justice, but restorative principles could theoretically provide a roadmap through them. Returning to the principle of “power-with”, schools would do well to form an implementation team consisting not only of restorative champions but also its most ardent critics and then continuously support them in understanding everyone’s needs and concerns.

Loss of grant funding

About five years ago, one of my graduate students evaluated a restorative system in a Virginia high school as part of her dissertation. The multi-method evaluation showed some limitations but also found six positive outcomes, including that:

  1. Students felt ownership of the process and believed it to be better than fighting at least some of the time.
  2. Students were using the system and had trust in it.
  3. Both students and staff reported that it improved relationships and led to less destructive conflict.
  4. It resulted in more mutual understanding and sometimes insight about the root causes of conflict.
  5. It increased academic focus.
  6. It kept the students in school and out of the criminal justice system (Ortega, et al., 2016).

There was excitement about the findings and a sense of pride in building something positive and useful. The following year, both the coordinator and the restorative program were gone. The reason? All of the funding was coming from a grant that was not renewed.

Many school districts have access to substantial federal and/or state money. There is no reason not to use such grants to support restorative justice initiatives as long as there is a transition plan to a sustainable funding stream that is under the school district’s control. Importantly, this includes staff salaries for coordinators and others whose job description includes restorative practices.

Lack of personal mentors

In preparing to write this article, I talked to several school administrators leading restorative initiatives in their schools or districts. Several highlighted the importance of having a personal relationship with either a restorative justice mentor or a colleague that was engaged in similar efforts that they could turn to when they felt stuck or discouraged.

“Without having someone with knowledge of both RPs and system building, I would have given it up," said Donna Kaufman, a regional assistant superintendent in central Illinois "I would have faked it. I would have used the terms but not really done it. The number one thing, and I don’t think I got that really at the time but I know it now, is that having someone I trusted to talk to when things got hard was what kept my mind and heart in the game.”

Going back to the old ways is untenable because we already know that those ways failed many of our students, but the way forward to restorative justice can seem unclear and even perilous because it’s unchartered territory, both logistically and politically. It will take commitment and coordinated effort to philosophically shift how we initiate and create change, to build an infrastructure that supports the new (restorative) values and practices, and to stay the course when the restorative ship gets temporarily stuck. Navigating these waters can certainly be challenging, but when has creating something different and new ever been easy?

This post is an excerpt from ASCD's Educational Leadership.


Ortega, L., Lyubansky, M., Nettles, S., & Espelage, D. L. (2016). Outcomes of a restorative circles program in a high school setting. Psychology of Violence, 6(3), 459.