Bruno: 'Restorative Justice' Vs. PBIS
One of the hip new things in K-12 education is "restorative justice": a philosophy of discipline that focuses less on punishing misbehavior and more on helping students repair any damage they cause to others in the school community. Nirvi Shah has a good piece in Education Week that nicely illustrates what 'RJ' can look like in practice.
That being said, I wish Shah had spent a little longer on exactly how hard restorative justice can be to implement and the risks of implementing it poorly. I had some experience at a school piloting a RJ system and I came away underwhelmed with its potential. I was frequently frustrated with its demands, disheartened by its results, and unsure of how to improve.
I'm fully prepared to acknowledge that many of my doubts and difficulties with restorative justice have their roots in my own limitations as a teacher. Nevertheless, the challenges were sufficiently numerous and substantial that I suspect many teachers and schools are likely to struggle with implementation in much the same way I did. I'll put a more detailed list of my difficulties and concerns below the fold.
Even most willing teachers are not naturally skilled at carrying out restorative justice. Many teachers - including me - are vaguely sympathetic to the goals of RJ, but have no idea how to do it well. Describing this as a professional development issue doesn't do the problem justice; it's hard for me to imagine an entire school developing the capacity to fully adopt RJ without the sort of multi-year implementation schedule that is difficult to remain committed to.
Not only does discipline need to word differently during instructional time, much of the "restorative" work happens outside of class altogether. Guiding a student through the restorative process requires identifying the full extent of the harm she's done, engaging her victims in describing it, and convincing her about what can and should be done to repair the damage. Most teachers would describe these things as routine parts of the job, but under an RJ system they each become enormously more involved; brief reprimands during lunch detention won't cut it.
When implemented poorly, restorative justice can backfire. I fully believe that when implemented effectively, RJ can create very positive, productive school environments. Effective implementation, though, is very difficult and it's not hard to see how partial implementation could be worse than no implementation at all. With its non-punitive philosophy, RJ can weaken the incentives for students to behave appropriately and can even encourage misbehavior by lavishing attention on students for committing infractions.
And by creating less-structured environments for student interaction - like the "circles" mentioned in the article above - unskilled teacher-facilitators may unwittingly allow already assertive students to leverage their social dominance even further inside the classroom. Facilitating these circles of two-dozen students was, for me, easily the least successful and most frustrating aspect of restorative justice. I was definitely not alone in my inability to turn these circles into the safe, socially equitable spaces they are intended to be to help build relationships between students.
Restorative justice requires large amounts of time and other school resources. Advocates argue that RJ, when done right, will increase learning by making more students happier and productive at school. This is conceivable, but my experience makes me skeptical. RJ schools routinely build in an hour or more of "circle" time per week, and teachers are encouraged to interrupt class with additional circles at their discretion. Individual disciplinary infractions also may be more likely to interrupt class since rapid "punitive" consequences are discouraged. All of this takes away from instructional time, to say nothing of the out-of-class time required to administer restorative justice in lieu of more traditional forms of discipline.
None of this should be taken to suggest that I do not believe that restorative justice can be done well and can, in some cases, be a worthwhile school-wide reform. My (admittedly limited) experience, however, makes me more optimistic about alternatives - like school-wide PBIS - that do not require quite such radical departures from the status quo. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)