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Restorative Practices, Do They Really Work?

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Public schools across our country have adopted “restorative” practices to manage student discipline, claiming these policies restore the relationship between the victim and bully while lowering the racial student discipline disparities. The reality is that parents fear sending their children to school due to safety concerns, and teachers are fed up with the lack of support from administrators when they must discipline students.

Restorative justice requires students and other participants to form a circle around the bully and victim when an incident occurs. The circle can be led by a teacher or peer student counselor. The intention of this circle is to talk through the incident from the perspective of the bully and the perspective of the victim. The desired outcome of the circle is for the bully and victim to reconcile. While this sounds great in theory, reality shows this rarely, if ever, succeeds.

Restorative justice only works if a bully actually cares about their victim’s feelings. As a result, it is only suited for those incidents where the bully is not aware that they have offended or harmed their victim. (After all, if a bully cares about their victim’s feelings, they would never knowingly harm them). However, most bullies know exactly what they are doing, and this makes restorative justice useless in practice.

One Tennessee mother explained how she removed her child from school after witnessing a useless restorative conference between her daughter and her daughter’s bully. In 2020, Chrissy learned about an assault against her daughter, Summer. The school suggested that Chrissy and Summer attend a restorative conference with the principal, Summer, Summer’s bully, and their P.E. teacher. In that conference, the bullying liaison asked the bully how she felt about the incident and why she assaulted Summer. The bully simply responded: “She deserved it.” Needless to say, the conference went nowhere after that.

Parents are not the only ones fed up with the practice, however. Across the country, teachers and even the resource officers executing these policies are frustrated with nonsensical programs and guidelines.

As one school resource officer put it, “The whole point of restorative justice is to show a kid the impact their actions have on others. Some kids don’t care, and it has no effect on them. I think it’s worth a try on a first offense but after that we need to hold the kid more accountable and have more consequences.”

Jessica, an elementary school teacher, expressed similar misgivings to me. She recalled how some administrators push restorative conferences because this allows them to skip the “burden” of filing so many bullying reports. They prioritize reducing their own workloads over their students’ safety. This is just more evidence that schools do not have students’ best interests at heart when promoting restorative justice measures.

The teachers, students, parents, and school officials mentioned here are not the alone in facing the difficulties of restorative practices in public schools. There are many with similar stories. Those who support the use of restorative practices are often not working directly with students and they do not get to see the realities of the practices they support.

Simply put, the restorative justice discipline model just doesn’t work. It creates a physically and emotionally unsafe environment that leaves students, teachers and administrators woefully unsupported.

Alternatives ways to discipline are welcome, but they cannot come at the expense of losing instruction time and safe learning environments.

If a student threatens the safety of those around them, he or she must be removed from the classroom until they prove to no longer threaten the physical safety, or learning environment, of their peers.

Students deserve access to safe and distraction-free learning environments. If schools cannot give that to our children, then they have failed them before classes even begin.

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