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October 1, 2021
Vol. 79
No. 2

Research Matters / Does Restorative Justice Work?

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Classroom Management
School Culture
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Credit: October 2021
Nationwide, a silent epidemic of out-of-school suspensions has spread across our schools. In 2013–14 (the last year these data were reported nationally), some 2.6 million students were suspended from school, with Black students and boys both being more than twice as likely to be suspended from school as their counterparts (NCES, 2019). In response, many schools are seeking alternatives to punitive or exclusionary practices that seem to do more harm than good. Schools have increasingly landed on restorative discipline.
No single definition, approach, or term exists for restorative justice. It goes by many labels, including restorative practices and restorative discipline, and the concept has its roots in some Indigenous communities, where wrongdoers aren't punished, but rather, taught to see how they've broken their community's circle of trust, shown how to ask forgiveness, and invited to return to the community. In practice, restorative practices typically consist of both proactive elements (defining shared values, building character, and developing a sense of community) and reactive elements (counseling students individually for minor infractions and providing them with group counseling or community circles for more serious infractions).
Yet, restorative justice programs are difficult to implement. As a team of WestEd researchers (Fronius et al., 2019) recently concluded from their review of research, restorative practices require intensive professional learning to encourage teacher buy-in and help school adults understand, for example, the fine line between using shame as a "bridge back to the community" and using it to stigmatize offenders (p. 5).
Simply stated, restorative discipline isn't a simple plug-and-play program that leaders can set and forget after a few workshops. Rather, it requires consistent leadership focus and modeling, ongoing coaching, and regular meetings to help school staff sustain and weave restorative practices into learning environments.
But even with all that, does it work?

Some Promising Findings …

Advocates of restorative practices, such as the International Institute for Restorative Practices, developer of the SaferSanerSchools program, offer several examples of positive results for the program. For example, at West Philadelphia High School, once deemed one of the state's most "Persistently Dangerous Schools," violent acts and serious incidents dropped by 52 percent, followed by a 40 percent drop the next year after implementation (Lewis, 2009). At a middle school in San Antonio, suspensions fell 57 and 36 percent, respectively, for 6th and 7th graders, and standardized reading and math scores improved for Black students after adopting restorative practices (Armour, 2014). Similarly, in Denver Public Schools, out-of-school suspensions improved 13 percent and expulsions dropped from 23 to six per year across seven schools that adopted restorative practices over a three-year period (Baker, 2009).

… But Little Scientific Evidence

None of these studies, however, employed true scientific design, and many rely on indicators such as educators' decisions on whether to refer students to a disciplinary process or suspend them, which are, as researchers note, "extremely subjective and may not be a true indicator of student behavior" (Kline, 2016, p. 101). A recent research review identified 67 studies of restorative practices, but found just four of these employed the basic research design of comparing performance between treatment and control groups—and just one met standards for scientific research (Zakszeski & Rutherford, 2020). That study, a two-year randomized control trial of SaferSanerSchools in 13 middle schools, found no significant outcomes (Acosta et al., 2019).
The only other scientific study to date (excluded from the previous review because it did not appear in a peer-reviewed journal) also reported limited effects. In this study, RAND researchers studied the SaferSanerSchools program in 44 buildings (22 treatment and 22 control) in the Pittsburgh district and found mixed results: Suspension rates declined after two years with the program—double the rate in control schools—yet these declines did not extend to male or middle school students. Moreover, incidents of violence, weapons, and arrests were unchanged, and academic outcomes did not improve in treatment schools—and worsened in middle schools (Augustine et al., 2018). The lack of evidence prompted Zakszeski and Rutherford to caution that educators may be putting the "cart" before the "horse" when adopting restorative practices (p. 12).

Some researchers believe educators may be putting the "cart" before the "horse" when adopting restorative practices.

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Bryan Goodwin

Responding to the Research

So, how should educators seeking alternatives to punitive disciplinary approaches respond to this research? First, let's be clear: Punitive practices themselves are hardly evidence-based and appear to be failing many students. Second, recall that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We cannot conclude from the research that restorative practices don't work—just that they have not yet been found to work in the narrow confines of experimental research.
As a case study of Algonquin High School in Virginia demonstrates, it's often best to take the process slow when implementing a restorative justice program, gradually developing expertise and evidence of effectiveness (Mansfield et al., 2018). Instead of rolling out restorative practices across the entire school, Algonquin High started with a small group of educators who shared a commitment to learning, adopting, and measuring the benefit of restorative practices for students. After experiencing initial success—including a significant drop in repeat student infractions—more teachers signed up for voluntary professional learning to bring restorative practices to their classrooms. As teachers grew more capable, disciplinary problems continued to decline—with suspensions dropping nearly in half over a four-year period. For Algonquin High, these data were proof enough that they were on the right track.
That's as it should be. After all, the only research that really matters is whether something works in your school and for your students. Moreover, the best solutions are seldom quick fixes; they take time, commitment, and focus. Yet finding a more compassionate and empathetic approach to discipline that works for your students is well worth the wait.

Acosta, J., Chinman, M., Ebener, P., Malone, P. S., Phillips, A., & Wilks, A. (2019). Evaluation of a whole-school change intervention: Findings from a two-year cluster-randomized trial of the restorative practices intervention. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 48(5), 876–890.

Armour, M. (2014). Ed White Middle School restorative discipline evaluation: Implementation and impact, 2013/2014 sixth and seventh grade. Austin, TX: University of Texas.

Augustine, C. H., Engberg, J., Grimm, G. E., Lee, E., Wang, E. L., Christianson, K., et al. (2018). Can restorative practices improve school climate and curb suspensions? An evaluation of the impact of restorative practices in a mid-sized urban school district. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp.

Baker, M. (2009). DPS restorative justice project: Year three. Denver, CO: Denver Public Schools.

Fronius, T., Darling-Hammond, S., Persson, H., Guckenburg, S., Hurley, N., & Petrosino, A. (2019). Restorative justice in U.S. schools: An updated research review. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.

Kline, D. M. S. (2016). Can restorative practices help to reduce disparities in school discipline data? A review of the literature. Multicultural Perspectives, 18(2), 97–102.

Lewis, S. (2009). Improving school climate: Findings from schools implementing restorative practices. Bethlehem, PA: International Institute for Restorative Practices.

Mansfield, K. C., Fowler, B., & Rainbolt, S. (2018). The potential of restorative practices to ameliorate discipline gaps: The story of one high school's leadership team. Educational Administration Quarterly, 54(2), 303–323.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2019). Percentage of students suspended and expelled from public elementary and secondary schools, by sex, race/ethnicity, and state: 2013-14. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, NCES.

Zakszeski, B., & Rutherford, L. (2020). Mind the gap: A systematic review of research on restorative practices in schools. School Psychology Review, 1–17.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for 15 years, serving previously as Chief Operating Officer and Director of Communications and Marketing. 

He has authored or co-authored several books, including Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student SuccessThe 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning: Tools for Achieving Success in Your School and The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020. Goodwin also writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership magazine. 

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