According to far-right activists, public school students are under attack from the “Marxist and anti-white ideology” of critical race theory (CRT) (MSN) and alleged “grooming” in the form of LGBTQ+ representation (The Daily Beast). In response to the imaginary persecution of white, straight, cisgender students, conservatives are doxxing trans teachers (MSN), letting Black kids get bullied out of their school districts (MSN), and purging school libraries of references to actual marginalized peoples. Denunciations of supposed CRT and LGBTQ+ school policies are little more than dog whistles for transphobic and racist politics (Vox). In reality, criminalization and punitive policies directly harm students, making educational institutions the first stop on the school-to-prison pipeline. With recent conservative rhetoric and attacks creating an environment that invites conflict and hostility, it’s becoming ever more essential for schools to move away from retribution and punishment to restorative justice.
Restorative justice is an approach to resolving conflict that “repairs the harm caused by a crime” (Centre for Justice and Reconciliation) instead of applying punitive measures like detention, suspension, or expulsion. There are several restorative justice practices to implement within school communities, such as facilitation between offender and victim, peer mediation in conflict resolution centers, hosting dialogue circles, and student integration following suspension.
• Oppose surveillance, policing, and retributive punishments within local schools.
• Petition to have student involvement in their school’s disciplinary decisions.
For restorative justice to work, students must trust the process (Hechinger Report). If successful, it allows everyone within the community to be held accountable to each other. But that can only happen if people are not forced but participate willingly.
In peer mediation circles, students who may get into a fight, for example, “talk it out” amongst each other in hopes of intervening before the issue becomes an even bigger problem (NPR). In dialogue circles, students sit in a large circular shape facing one another. Here, they can check-in with each other, settle minor disputes, and perhaps even hold academic interventions (Edutopia). Even after a student has done a suspendable offense, restorative justice can allow for integration through hosting circles with parents, school administrators, and the student to find the best path forward in the school (Christian Science Monitor).
In restorative justice, people are allowed to make mistakes without racist sentiments percolating. Its efficiency is largely predicated on the intentions of the student, which aren’t always known. However, you can get a more holistic view of the student by including peers, teachers, parents, and administrators in the decision, not just administrators handing down a punishment.
“Did the student know what they said was racist? What was the context in which they said it, and how can that be misconstrued? Did they apologize?” These are the serious questions that schools can use to assess a student’s intentions.
Restorative justice has also been proven to prevent students from falling into the school-to-prison pipeline (The Praxis Project). Teachers also benefit from restorative justice as it has been proven to improve the behavior in the classroom dramatically (We Are Teachers). In the face of recession, war, and anti-CRT and LGBTQ+ school attack campaigns, we must implement policies that support students and our communities.
Restorative justice addresses the roots of the harm, making it less likely for the same thing to happen again. It brings us all to a greater understanding of not just what was harmful, but why it was – and what we can do better. Punitive models of retributive justice end up replicating existing inequities, whereas restorative justice prevents us from falling into that trap. Ultimately, we need models that transform institutions from sites of harm to spaces of liberation (EMU).
• Restorative justice is more productive in resolving community issues and disagreements than punitive measures.
• People must willingly participate in restorative justice practices for it to work.
• The same restorative justice practices must apply to everyone to hold the entire community accountable.
*This piece was originally published on 10/19/20. It was updated and edited by The ARD on 10/21/22.