Restorative Justice: A Different Approach to Discipline

By Deva Dalporto

Suspensions at Bunche High School, a continuation school in a high-crime, high-poverty community of Oakland, Calif., dropped by 51% last year. Disrespect for teachers has declined; the school is safer. Students are more focused on their studies and many have stopped cutting class.

Teachers at the school say these positive results are due in large part to a radically different approach to discipline called restorative justice: a bold alternative to the typical zero tolerance policies that lead to mandatory suspensions and expulsions. “Restorative justice is a major cultural shift from a punitive model to a restorative model,” said David Yusem, Program Manager of Restorative Justice for the Oakland Unified School District, one of the first districts in the nation to embrace the practice.

Oakland first introduced the program in 2006 at its Cole Middle School. District leaders planned to close the school due to low test scores when it started a restorative justice pilot program. In the three years since embracing the practice, suspensions dropped by 87%, violence decreased dramatically and expulsions became non-existent. The district took notice and in 2009, it overhauled its system and made restorative justice the new model for handling disciplinary problems. In 2011 it hired a program manager and created a system to roll it out to all the schools in the district.

What Is Restorative Justice?

Restorative justice is a revolutionary program based on respect, responsibility, relationship-building and relationship-repairing. It focuses on mediation and agreement rather than punishment. It aims to keep kids in school and to create a safe environment where learning can flourish. And it appears to be working incredibly well.

“Restorative justice is a fundamental change in how you respond to rule violations and misbehavior,” said Ron Claassen, a pioneer of the program and Director of Restorative Justice in Schools. “The typical response to bad behavior is punishment. Restorative justice resolves disciplinary problems in a cooperative and constructive way.”

If a student misbehaves and a restorative justice system is in place, the offending student is given the chance to come forward and make things right. He sits down in a circle and works together with the teacher and the affected parties to work it out.

To facilitate the process, the teacher or mediator asks non-judgmental, restorative questions like, “What happened? How did it happen? What can we do to make it right?” Through their discussions, they all gain a better understanding as to what happened, why it happened and how the damage can be fixed. “They’ll talk about what can be done to repair the harm,” Yurem said about the process at OUSD, “They’ll come up with a plan and fulfill that plan. And hopefully the relationship will be stronger. It’s really all about relationships—building and repairing them.”

In Oakland, schools are using a three-tiered model of prevention/intervention/supported reentry. The first tier is all about community building as a preventive measure. They have regular classroom circles in which the students sit in with a restorative justice coordinator or a peer facilitator and share their inner most feelings.

“The circles are based on indigenous practices that value inclusiveness, respect, dealing with things as a community and supporting healing,” Yurem explained. “Kids really resonate with this process. I’ve seen kids share things that I was extremely surprised by, like eighth grade boys talking about what scares them. To seem weak in their world is a life-threatening thing so I was really impressed.” All of this sharing builds the foundation in which restorative discipline thrives. The second tier is intervention, in which teachers use restorative discipline practices like mediation and family/group circles to discuss and mend the harm that was done.

And the final tier supports the reentry of students who have been out of school due to suspension, expulsion, truancy or incarceration. Oakland schools aim to create a “wraparound” supportive environment when these students return. The goal is to set the kids up for success no matter what their past.

A System In Which Kids Help the Teacher Create a Respect Agreement

Claassen was first introduced to the concept of restorative justice in 1982 when he was working in the juvenile justice system. Eight years later, his wife Roxanne Classsen started teaching at Raisin City Elementary School in Fresno County and took the practices into her classroom. “I was seeing incredible results in the justice system,” said Ron Classsen, “We thought there was a good place for practicing it in schools.”

Administrators took notice of Roxanne Classsen’s techniques, and soon the pair was approached to train other teachers in the practice. Today they coach teachers and graduate students from all over in restorative discipline at Fresno Pacific University’s Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies.

“Restorative justice works really well in schools,” said Roxanne Claassen. “Students respond to it because they see it’s a fair structure and they become more cooperative.”

Restorative justice requires a major paradigm shift for everyone involved. The teacher is no longer the big boss. “It’s a sharing of power between students and teachers,” said Matt Gehrett, Executive Director for Online and Continuing Education at Fresno Pacific. “It’s very empowering for students.”

In the restorative justice model, children play an integral part in creating the climate. They and their teacher create a classroom respect agreement and all agree to be held accountable. In her classroom, Roxanne Classsen worked with students at the beginning of every year to write a “Respect Agreement.” Together they determine how they will treat each other to create a positive classroom community.

The contract is an extremely effective way of maintaining harmony in the classroom. “Teachers can’t say, ‘Here are my rules, sign them,’” said Yurem. “That doesn’t work. There’s no ownership for the students in that. If the children help create the rules, then they have ownership. And if they break them, they can be referred back to them.”

Consequences That Are Fair and Not Puntive

In her classroom, if a student violated the respect agreement, Roxanne Claassen would remind the student of the agreement and ask him if he wanted to honor it. Ninety percent of the time, the student did, and the problem ended there. If further action was required, Claassen would work with the student to find a solution. “You try to work together with the student to find a solution. You say, ‘Here’s the problem, what can do to fix it?’ The message you’re sending the child is, ‘I’m not against you. I’m for you. I want you to succeed’,” said Claassen. And that message is very effective at building trust between teacher and student.

In one instance, two of Claassen’s eighth grade boys broke a paper towel dispenser in the bathroom. At first, no one admitted responsibility. So Claassen told them, “We have a restorative discipline system here so we accept responsibility and can make things as right as possible. But we can’t do that unless someone accepts responsibility.”

The boys admitted they’d done it. Claassen called a meeting with all the people involved or affected by the incident -the boys, their parents and the custodian. They talked about what happened and everyone was heard. “In that process the custodian had a chance to let the students know how difficult it is to replace a dispenser,” said Claassen. “It gave the students incredible knowledge of a real-world situation in a way a suspension never could, and relationships improved instead of being damaged.”

One of the students couldn’t afford to pay to replace the dispenser. So the student himself suggested that he could work with the custodian to pay his debt. He did. And he enjoyed it so much he continued to help the custodian long after he finished his restitution.

Positive Discipline, Positive Behavior

Teachers who use restorative discipline practices find the behavior in their classrooms improves dramatically. They have better relationships with their students and therefore less stress from unresolved conflicts.

“Restorative discipline improved my relationships with students,” said Roxanne Claassen. “Instead of making the relationships more difficult it brought us together and improved our interactions.” And it’s more efficient too. “You spend less time wasted on discipline and have more time available for teaching and interaction when you use restorative practices,” Roxanne Claassen observed. “Students aren’t afraid to admit when they’ve done something wrong as they are in a punitive environment so you save a lot of time investigating who did what.

“Students come forward if they make a mistake,” said Ron Claassen. “When you have a punitive system, the automatic response is to deny responsibility because you know you’ll get punished. With a restorative justice system in place, the incentive is to admit what you did because you know there’s going to be a restorative process to make things right.”

And one of the biggest benefits? Using restorative practices keeps kids in school. They aren’t tossed out for disrupting class or violating minor rules like children in punitive systems consistently are. Everyone works together to keep them in the classroom where they can learn. Children who are expelled from school often end up in what education reform activists call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Restorative justice seeks to stop that cycle and keep kids on track with their educations.

“Restorative justice addresses the harm caused by the offense and the harm revealed by the offense,” said Yurem. “When you get these kids talking you learn about the traumas they have faced. Maybe their brother was killed or their father was sent to prison. If you can get to the root of the cause of the offense, you’re truly stopping the cycle.”

And even if there isn’t a major underlying problem, getting kids to talk about what they did and why they did it is a more constructive way to handle disciplinary problems. “The restorative process teaches students how to resolve conflict in a positive way,” said Ron Claassen. “It helps them develop rational skills—to understand a situation, follow a process and resolve it. These are life skills they can take with them into the world.”

Coming to a School Near You?

In Oakland, restorative justice is working wonders. Their three-tired model is proving to be very effective. It’s helping to keep kids off the street and in school where they are able to learn and thrive.

“I’ve seen a child with a 0.0 GPA become class valedictorian by being engaged in this process,” said Yurem. “It works because the students feel like they have some power and worth and value. A lot of these kids are students that people had written off. Students no one believed would graduate. When all they needed was a caring adult to listen and allow them to share who they are.”

Soon restorative justice may be the norm rather than the exception when it comes to school discipline. Many districts across the country have begun to implement programs in their schools. And in California, legislation to require that schools attempt other disciplinary practices before resorting to suspension has been proposed. If passed, we could see a major surge of restorative practices in one of the country’s biggest states.

“The big vision is that this could be implemented in all schools,” said Ron Claassen. And he’s working to make that vision a reality, one classroom or district at a time.


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