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Bruno: 'Restorative Justice' Vs. PBIS

5133977586_751756b0c1_nOne 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.

Many teachers have strong visceral and philosophical objections to restorative justice. (I was not in this camp, but a significant minority of teachers probably are.) The first obstacle for any school-wide reform is often staff buy-in, and that hurdle is especially high for RJ. For better or worse many teachers like traditional, "punitive" disciplinary measures - like detention and suspension - for both practical and principled reasons. These teachers may resent the idea of dedicating substantial time and energy to engaging student misconduct non-punitively, and that sort of resentment does not lend itself to building an effective school-wide culture.

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)


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A longtime community leader in San Francisco's Western Addition African-American community named London Breed was elected last week as a city supervisor (SF's governing body). The press coverage of Breed mentioned some use of strong language in public, and in making that point, cited her describing restorative justice as bull****. The press account was about her using the dirty word, but people focused on education took note of the substance. In San Francisco, one does not simply criticize restorative justice. I wasn't aware of the comment until that article, so I don't know more about this situation.

Like any initiative, on-going training and cultivating teacher buy-in is critical for successfully implementing restorative practices in schools. It appears Mr. Bruno's experience with RP unfortunately was lacking in both areas. Having successfully implemented RP in two high schools and now in one of the largest districts in PA, I can attest to the success of RP in creating school cultures based on positive and accountable relationships. RP doesn't replace disciplinary consequences; rather RP builds in accountability by having students "fix" the harm they caused. RP takes less time then people often imagine because the vast bulk of RP interactions occur in the classroom and do not need more time consuming conferences. RP is based on high expectations coupled with high support for students - the same applies for the adults when implementing RP in schools.

@Joseph - I agree completely about the investments required for successful implementation, but I do think that once we start talking about these sorts of massive undertakings opportunity costs start to become substantial and likely to weigh against RJ as a reform scheme.

Joseph is absolutely correct. Like our children we (teachers) are all learners and must model this for students to understand what a good learner looks like. Otherwise, we are not teachers but instructors and the didactic approach of the instructor is unintelligent emotionally and does not promote values but instead rules. Children will follow rules if you are enough of a dominator but they will not appreciate the rules for their intrinsic values. They will do what they are told not because it's right but because they are afraid to be punished.

Therefore, we (teachers) also need to learn why we are learning (philosphy of RP) then learn how (conversations, circles, meetings, conferences, etc) and then learn how to apply and evaluate. This is a process requiring skilled training and passionate belief in a whole school systemic approach based upon respect and reparation. Indeed, the worst perpetrators Bruno refers to are those who don't care about rules and break them regularly because the punishment is short and easily forgotten - so I can get back on with breaking them unnoticed more often than not, or ignored due to "lack of time"!

A point worth considering is; why do teachers, whose job it is to educate (and empower) young people, want a system which they can apply swiftly? Maybe because they don't wish to invest of themselves methinks - these people are not teachers.

RP is mature, respectful and encourages responsibility at a deep understanding level and is necessarily backed up by your disciplinary system not replacing it. So get a passionate exponent and enjoy a much more fulfilling ethos which will permeate every aspect of your schools day to day practice.

RJ (and even PBIS) could be very effective in achieving the outcomes they intend, and could even result in powerful learning for the students who haven't "learned" to manage their behavior before they arrive at the upper grades, but as Paul Bruno points out there is a substantial opportunity cost. That cost feels especially high to students who don't need peer effects in order to manage their actions, who don't need to think deeply about their behavior because they've mastered self-control at an earlier age either at home or from K-3 teachers (who do need to coach students to attain the level of self-management that's necessary in group situations).

Charter schools are popular even when they don't achieve great academic gains largely because parents want an environment for their children where behavioral issues don't trump academic learning.

Thank you for expressing your opinion on this Mr. Bruno and all the great comments too. As suggested by some, and I agree, restorative justice and positive behavior support approaches are consistent and compliment each other.

Instead of framing this as: “’Restorative Justice’ Vs. PBIS,” I suggest: Restorative Justice for Positive Behavior Support or PBIS. Kris Miner also wrote a blog 2 years ago: School-based Restorative Justice in PBIS (positive behavioral interventions and supports): http://circle-space.org/2010/12/08/school-based-restorative-justice-is-pbis-positive-behavioral-interventions-supports/.

Both restorative justice (RJ) and positive behavior support (PBIS) use public health principals for addressing wrongdoing and harm. In fact my blog developed in 2008 is based on the idea that restorative justice is a public health approach: http://www.lorennwalker.com/blog/.

Public health developed and has used the three levels of prevention known as primary, secondary and tertiary to address disease for decades. A public health approach is often suggested for violence prevention http://www.vetoviolence.org/basics-primary-prevention.html. PBIS also seeks to prevent harm and promote good student behavior using the three prevention levels first described in public health http://www.scribd.com/doc/27069628/Handbook-of-Positive-Bahavior-Support.

Kris Miner developed a helpful one page paper on how the primary, secondary and tertiary levels apply to restorative justice for bullying that can be downloaded from her above mentioned blog.

Many throughout the world including Hawai’i, Hull, England, Washington D.C. at the Columbia Heights Collaborative, have been using a solution-focused approach, which is an example of a PBS application, with restorative justice. Both RJ and solution-focused approaches compliment each other http://www.freepatentsonline.com/article/Journal-Instructional-Psychology/289619985.html.

RJ addresses how harm can be repaired, which helps prevent furture harm, and a school using PBIS can use RJ as an intervention when misbehavior occurs.

Learning to facilitate circles for addressing conflict is something most teachers can learn. In the Montessori method of education, over 100 years old, circles for group learning are an important process for beginning each school day. And according to Peter Senge, organizational management expert, “no indigenous culture has yet been found that does not have the practice of sitting in a circle and talking” (Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, Isaaccs). Even our modern Western cultures have a history of individuals meeting in groups personally to deal with conflicts, instead of courtrooms with professionals speaking for us (Van Ness & Braithwaite). Circles are a natural human process.

Thank you again for your column. Hopefully all our efforts and further communication and learning will lead to more peaceful schools and happier people.

I agree with Lorenn. It's not RJ v's PBIS. PBIS provides a framework for improvement around behaviour management, but it is relatively philosophy-free. In NZ, the Ministry of Education has "tucked" the RP philosophy and practice under the PBIS umbrella and schools doing both well have had startingly good results both in behaviour and academic progress. See http://www.vln.school.nz/vln_google_search?q=restorative

The issue is NOT about RJ/RP or PBIS. The issue is about how well organisational change is managed. Is the leadership team committed to culture change? How does the school leadership capture the hearts and minds of the school community? Is there an implementation team? Is data being used as a lever for change? Is there a budget? It's the behaviour of teachers which has to change first......and we have to understand that social evolution is rapid and that kids are no longer moved by authoritarian approaches. What moves them is the quality of the relationship.

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