Jason is a high school student suspended for fighting during lunch hour at school. This is the third time he’s been caught in a fight. Is this justice?
Jason’s mother works, and his father is away from home. If Jason is suspended, he will end up hanging out with older kids not in school, which may get them into more trouble. Is this justice?
The student fighting with Jason is a leader with strong grades and on the student council. It’s his first time getting caught. He is given lunch hour clean-up duty. Is this justice?
What is justice? This story illustrates the complexities of justice in relationships in school settings. Typically, we look for who’s to blame and what kind of punishment is appropriate. But the Master Teacher actually modeled another way – a restorative way that focuses on making things right. Bringing this into education means that how we act in the classroom and with our students must also be just. Restorative justice in education (RJE) means creating just interactions through high accountability combined with high support.
RJE sets high expectations of behavior for everyone, including students, teachers and administration. Guidelines are designed collaboratively. Students need to think through what kinds of behaviors are helpful to make their school a safe and healthy place of learning and what processes should be followed if students don’t follow the expectations.
Students are also expected to respond to harm done by taking responsibility and recognizing the impact of their behavior on others. By focusing on making things right instead of assigning blame and punishment, students need to move beyond “It wasn’t me!” or “I didn’t mean it!” They recognize that regardless of their intention, harm was done and things need to be made right.
A final expectation is that there are no innocent bystanders. By thinking of school as a system, students learn that everyone is affected when harm is done. Often when harm happens, there are witnesses who could have stepped up to intervene, but didn’t for any number of reasons. By acknowledging that the harm affects more than just an individual victim, the whole school community takes on responsibility for everyone’s behavior.
RJE principles also provide high support for students to be able to reach the high expectations set. All teachers, administration and students are involved in creating a positive learning community. This means that responding to behavior problems becomes proactive through regular communication even when things are going well.
In times of conflict, students are supported through processes like circles and conferencing with follow-up to help people work things through together. Teachers and administration ensure there is space for everyone’s voice, and enough time to make things right.
The best support offered for students to meet the high expectations set is the commitment to never give up on anyone. Giving up is not an option because relationships don’t go away, even with suspensions or removals from the program. Giving up doesn’t resolve any harms or bring justice. So even if it takes time, the restorative approach is to keep trying to make things right.
What could justice look like for Jason and his school community from a restorative perspective? Maybe there is more to their stories that could help the students to understand one another, given enough time and space to share them. Maybe support from the larger student body could help them work at making things right. In any case, an RJE approach can allow us to be more creative in our responses – to use our imaginations and capabilities so that all our interactions can lead to justice.