Tuesday, May 12, 2009

State of Restorative Practices in American Schools

I am grateful to two wonderful colleagues whom I have visited with recently for these understandings.

Currently restorative practices in schools are often marginalized to end-of-the-line interventions. Apparently schools are not willing to change the culture, the status quo. In that event, I believe we must focus on helping the students who are the focus of our interventions to find a place where they can learn in an atmosphere that values:
  • Supporting these students to build and maintain peaceful and caring relationships and
  • Helping these students to flourish.
I urge restorative practices practitioners to avoid placing or being an accomplice to placing these students back into an environment where they are doomed to fail.

My research reveals that American schools tend to view restorative practices as a response to wrongdoing and conflict, rather than a basis for transformation of the school culture. Schools are strongly resistant to change. They would rather make minor adjustments to the status quo and term it reform. The Culture of Care in Schools that I help schools engage in calls for profound change.


  1. I think your comments are accurate. I work with schools in the UK training and introducing Restorative practices in their school community. The easy part is the training, the harder part is one of 'change'; a change of culture, a change in a belief that a new system can work as historically they have relied on punitive actions, a change in the way staff interact with students.

    We encourage a "whole School Approach" and are developing our training to start with the schools senior team. This helps to focus on the road ahead and not as you rightly put it, an "end-of-the-line intervention"

    Restorative Justice and all its elements work, we both know that. We just need to keep sharing the fine examples which exist and to celebrate those schools who have accepted 'change'


    Andy Jenrick
    Somerset, UK

  2. I only want to register my own frustration with the status quo and my support for RJ practices in schools. I've just entered the world of RJ in education because I've naturally practiced it in my classes without studying RJ formally. I know have found a theoretical framework to work within, and it is powerful. The only challenge to it is the all-consuming leviathan that is the current administration whose abilty to reason is stunted by its own short-sightedness.

  3. Excellent point - cultural change and response to conflict. I refer to it as proactive and reactive. We need to do both - just like primary, secondary and tertiary system change.

    Look forward to seeing more on your blog!


  4. I also feel that your assessment of schools is correct. Administrators are often looking for "quick fixes" and focus on disciplinary results rather that a whole building philosophy. However, I do believe that part of that responsibility lies with the way that restorative justice practitioners tried to advertise or "sell" the process by focusing on only disciplinary issues in their initial conference information or administrator training. RJ practitioners were quickly trying to publish quantitative data on expulsion and suspension information, rather than qualitative data on student feelings about the process.

    Individual educators, however, have started grassroots RJ projects in schools. As a teacher and trained Circle Keeper, I have often been frustrated by the lack of "whole program" adoption, but have instead tried to focus on the power and success that small groups of practitioners have had on individual students. My thesis work focuses on the impact of RJ Circles on alternative students' feelings of connectedness. Through that research process using qualitative interviews, I discovered that the use of RJ Circles in my program were having profound and transformative effects on my students and our staff. (For a copy of my thesis, you can contact me at amybintliff at mac dot com.) Part of my work is also documenting the impact that RJ Circles have when used with human rights/social justice frameworks regarding curriculum. In follow-up interviews years after the program was implemented, I discovered that the combination of the two led to powerful experiences and has had long-lasting results on student perceptions of justice, community, and connectedness.

    In conclusion, Individual teachers need to be validated in their RJ work. There also needs to be better networking and more scholarship available to individual educators for advanced training. I strongly believe that grassroots work in classrooms, with more teacher-as-researcher publications, will cause the initial attitudes about RJ in schools to be seen through a different lens.