Restorative Justice Provides a Better Way of School Discipline

This blog post was written by three staff members of the Loyola Marymount University Restorative Justice Project, which is part of LMU’s Center for Urban Resilience (CURes). CURes is a group of academics, environmental professionals and community partners committed to improving the quality of life in our urban communities, especially those that have been historically underserved. The staff members at CURes have expertise in science, policy, ethics, natural history, urban planning and educational practices.  Click here if you would like to know more about the CURes Restorative Justice Project.

This blog post was written in response to an article in the Los Angeles Times from November 8th, 2015 entitled “Why some LAUSC teachers are balking at a new approach to discipline problems” by Teresa Watanabe and Howard Blume.

Restorative Justice Provides a Better Way of School Discipline

If you cut corners when you’re baking, the result is likely an inedible cake. The same applies to discipline in schools: Restorative Justice practices work, but half measures just make a mess.

We applaud Teresa Watanabe and Howard Blume for bringing forward an article about such a complicated concept as Restorative Justice and its relationship to a large and troubled school system. However, entrenched traditional approaches to school discipline that focus on crime and punishment continue to undermine the relationship between teachers and students.

The costs of these relationship failures extend beyond the individual student to all members of society as we share the burden of the broken child and the lost opportunity of that child’s contribution to society.

The approach Restorative Practices takes is anything but a slap on the wrist. It is, in fact, strong on accountability and laser focused on the child’s relationship to herself and to her community. We think that traditional punishment does little to invite those who are already on the outside of society to come into the circle of productivity. In this volatile economy, we do not have the luxury of a lost generation of students alienated by an education system that fails both teachers and students. Nor can we accommodate a misunderstanding of an extraordinary resource such as the mindful application of Restorative Practices.

Restorative Practices, that currently exist in LAUSD, do not meet the criteria envisioned by the pioneers of this field. Restorative Practices, an innovative alternative to the traditional discipline system, aim to provide communities with safe, inclusive, and effective tools to develop and maintain relationships within a healthy school environment. Restorative Practices involve processes that restore relationships when harm and conflict has occurred, hold people accountable for their behavior and address the root causes of oppositional behavior. Restoring the relationships and learning from the behavior helps reduce the likelihood of recurrence.

Without proper training, on-going skill-building sessions and interventions in times of crisis by skilled Restorative Practices experts, teachers are getting the impression that they have no viable way to hold young people accountable for their behavior and that Restorative Practices don’t work. This notion couldn’t be further from the truth.

In our approach to Restorative Practices at Loyola Marymount University’s Center for Urban Resilience, we take a whole-school perspective, whereby we invite all stakeholders — students, families, guardians, faculty, staff and administrators — to participate in the restorative process. Through a restorative process called Community Conferencing, a trained, neutral facilitator asks everyone involved in an incident to talk about what happened, how everyone has been affected, and what can be done to repair the harm and make sure it doesn’t again.

This comprehensive strategy promotes an environment where the school community benefits from working collectively toward building and maintaining strong interpersonal and community relationships.

The schools that are implementing this philosophy with fidelity are able to mold knowledgeable, responsible, and civically engaged citizens. When we hear from teachers concerned about students escaping consequences for their actions, that’s a clear indication to us that a restorative process isn’t being implemented at a school with the critical level of resources necessary for success.

For example at a Los Angeles area high school, a Community Conference led by a trained, neutral facilitator revealed that two students fought each other over giving each other dirty looks. During the course of the conference the students admitted they were influenced by their friends and observed that the whole thing could have been avoided. They apologized to each other and to show the school they really learned from it, the students offered to help tutor other students. When one of the girls revealed she isn’t very good at math, the other one shared that math is her best subject, so they added an agreement point to work together.

Unfortunately, our school communities are overburdened and people have attempted hybrid versions of Restorative Practices, which culminate into “half-baked” resolutions that don’t last. This gives the unfortunate impression that Restorative Practices are ineffective – when, in fact – the process they were implementing should never have been called Restorative Practices in the first place.

Eric Strauss, Ph.D., President’s Professor of Biology and Executive Director Schoene Mahmood, Restorative Justice Project                                                     Scott Wood, J.D., Restorative Justice Project