Archive for the ‘Restorative Justice’ Category


Restorative justice is very much in vogue in Canada’s K-12 schools.  Widespread adoption of restorative justice theory and practice, commonly reflected in “circle conversations,” is largely aimed at moderating punitive, and at times harsh, discipline in schools.  Defenders of the new student behaviour management approach, claim that it works to the benefit of ‘labelled students,’ drawn disproportionately from racialized and marginalized communities. Since the recent advent of Black Lives Matter and the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, it has gained fresh currency in public schools everywhere.

Restorative justice flourished first in the criminal justice system as a preferred law reform venture for juvenile offenders and aimed at, in the words of leading expert Dalhousie law professor Jennifer Llewellyn, “repairing or addressing the harm cased to social relationships when wrongdoing happens.” It attempts, not always successfully, to bring together offenders, victims and affected community members to resolve conflict, normally after the judicial system or school disciple committee has rendered its decision.

The whole approach is not really new because it was actually pioneered fifty years ago by American criminologist and devout Mennonite Howard Zehr, a justice system reformer committed to humanizing what he saw as a punitive and harsh  justice system for both offenders and victims.

While popular in law reform circles as a way of promoting ”forgiveness,” it has struggled to gain acceptance, particularly among victims or crime and their families. It’s hard for victims, often suffering from life-altering trauma or witnessing blatant wrongdoing, to see let alone appreciate the harms being done by harsh sentences or punitive measures.  From the beginning, restorative justice resolutions have suffered because of the public perception that offenders or juvenile violators tend to “get off easy” and rarely face meaningful consequences.

Implementing restorative justice is definitely not the panacea envisioned by its ardent proponents. One professional review of School Restorative Justice, published in March 2019 by Mikhail Lyubansky in Psychology Today, identified the nine most common criticisms of the current practice. Restorative justice in schools, according to practitioners in the field, often suffers from a few or many of these shortcomings:

  • Takes too long to implement in busy schools
  • Can be emotionally draining
  • Cuts into actual teaching time
  • Lacks in accountability leaving too much to self-responsibility
  • Little follow-through on agreed remedial actions
  • Perceived as just a gentler way of controlling student behaviour
  • Places unfair expectation on victims/survivors to talk with those who harmed them
  • Victims/survivors unlikely to ever forgive perpetrators of sexual assault or overt racism
  • Elements of compulsion creep into the process, causing victims and community members to harbour substantial resentment and demonstrate resistance.

Its mass application in elementary, middle school and high school classrooms is more about ‘humanizing kids’ through the latest mutation of what American education researcher Daniel Buck has termed “community-building prophylactics.”  It also remains essentially experimental because, until recently, no independent, evidence-based research has been conducted demonstrating its effectiveness.

Two reasonably sound RAND Corporation studies, conducted in Pittsburgh and Maine, have shown mixed results in implementing Restorative Justice in schools.  Twenty-two Pittsburgh public schools’ engaged in a restorative justice program were studied by RAND Corporation researchers over two school years, 2015-16 and 2016-17 in what was reportedly the most comprehensive study utilizing the first randomized trial — the gold standard in social science research.

Suspension rates were reduced somewhat in restorative justice schools, as 12.6 percent of students were suspended at least once, compared to 14.6 percent in regular schools. Fewer Black students received suspensions under to the program, though they were still much more likely to be suspended than white students. Most significantly, restorative justice all but eliminated expulsions and the placement of students in “alternative” schools.


While schools may have been a little safer, student academic results did suffer under restorative justice conditions. The effect was less pronounced in reading, but math scores for students in grades 3 through 8 did fall significantly. More concerning, it was black students, not white students, whose scores fell. A black student at the 50th percentile dropped to roughly the 44th percentile during the implementation of restorative justice.

The Maine study, published online in March 2019 by the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, found that adopting RJ in middle schools made little or no difference in school climate. While the study didn’t look at academic grades or suspension rates, it showed RJ had little impact on bullying and related school Indicators. It also revealed how hard it is for schools to implement restorative justice even after two years of teacher training, monthly consultations and visits by coaches. Students’ survey answers revealed that it didn’t really impact their behaviour,” teen resistance to “buying-in,” and reluctance to meet face-to-face with classmates seen as ‘enemies’ or threatening figures. It’s a voluntary process and not every kid wanted to talk.

Restorative Justice can also go awry when it drifts into the realm of professional mental health practice. Identifying and treating children and youth with serious mental health disorders should remain the domain of health experts. While most teachers have some background in psychology, social therapy is fraught with risks and best left to those who are trained and licensed psychologists.

Jumping into Restorative Justice is a classic case of “putting the cart before the horse” and jumping over the research.   Giving students personal advice and career guidance is perfectly fine, but restorative justice remains problematic.  We need to recognize that RJ’s effectiveness has not been proven and, if today’s classrooms come to mimic group therapy sessions, it may well cause unintended harms. It’s time to recognize the limitations of restorative justice insofar as they apply to its overuse in schools.

What’s the philosophical rationale for implementing Restorative Justice in schools?  What are some of the most common criticism?  How effective is it, judging from the latest evidence-based research? In adopting RJ in schools what might be the rewards – and the risks?  How might the potential downsides be addressed by schools?  

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