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Socializing schools: Addressing racial disparities in discipline through restorative justice

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CHAPTER 10
Socializing Schools
Addressing Racial Disparities in Discipline Through Restorative
Justice
Thalia González
Restorative justice as an approach to improving the school learning environment and student
behavior is based on three core principles: repairing harm, involving stakeholders, and
transforming community relationships (Macready, 2009; Morrison, 2003; Morrison, 2007; Zehr,
2003). Since the first documented use of restorative justice in schools, its advocates have
promoted it as an alternative to zero-tolerance and punitive exclusionary discipline. As
interviews with administrators, teachers, parents, students, and school resource officers in the
Denver Public Schools have revealed, the impact of restorative practices is not simply an
academic idea but a practice for transforming the community:
Restorative justice serves our classroom because students are no longer alienated by the
discipline process, but rather affirmed in their feelings and coached on how to act on those
feelings in a constructive way. Students are taught how to behave, not punished for breaking
rules they never learned. 2nd/3rd Grade Math/Science Teacher, CASA
In recent years, diverse models of restorative justice have been implemented in schools
across the United States to address increasing concerns about the significant negative impact of
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exclusionary discipline, particularly for African American and Latino students (Skiba et al.,
2011). Research showing that punitive discipline and zero-tolerance policies have resulted in a
significant increase in suspensions and expulsions for all students has also documented the
alarmingly disproportionate rates at which African American and Latino students experience
discipline (Gregory, Cornell, & Fan, 2011; Skiba et al., 2011). Such experiences have far-
reaching negative implications, from academic underperformance to increased risk of antisocial
behavior and entry into the school-to-prison pipeline.
International studies of restorative justice practices in schools provide significant evidence of
its positive outcomes for students, teachers, parents, and community members (Morrison, 2007).
No similar study has been conducted in the United States, until now. This longitudinal study on
the impact of restorative justice in Denver Public Schools (DPS) is the first conducted in an
urban school district in the United States. This multiyear examination of the implementation of
school-based restorative justice practices across several school sites is based on an unusually rich
combination of empirical and qualitative data allowing for comprehensive analysis.
The findings presented in this chapter are based on a case study analysis of DPS conducted
from 2008 to 2013, and on data collected by DPS from 2006 to 2013. Data are drawn from
observations, open-ended interviews, and secondary analyses of empirical discipline data from
DPS at both the district and school levels. The findings provide educational policymakers with
five key considerations. First, the systemic implementation of restorative justice at the school
and district levels, coupled with the reform of discipline policies, can play a key role in
addressing disproportionality in discipline outcomes. Second, the positive impact of restorative
practices not only addresses disproportionate discipline but also can be correlated with increased
academic achievement. Third, the implementation of restorative practices should be aligned with
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clear short-, medium-, and long-term goals, beginning with a small pilot phase and transitioning
to widespread adoption. Fourth, the implementation of restorative practices will be different in
every district, as it is not simply about adding another program to a teachers classroom or
disciplinarians protocols but about institutionalizing practices that facilitate microinstitutional
changes that are responsive to the needs of individuals and communities. Fifth, the most effective
approach to implementing restorative practices is a comprehensive continuum model that can
have transformative effects within an individual school community and also be part of
districtwide implementation.
RESTORATIVE JUSTICE IN SCHOOLS
The broad aim of restorative justice is to develop educational policies and practices that are more
responsive and restorative to the needs and concerns of the school community (Morrison, 2007).
Restorative justice models contribute to the goal of education by emphasizing accountability,
restitution, and restoration of a school community. Restorative justice values a deliberative
process because it facilitates mutual understanding, problem solving, and expressions of remorse,
compassion, apology, and forgiveness, which might lead to reparative agreements and promote
feelings of respect, peace, and satisfaction. As qualitative data have revealed, these feelings
contribute to the social capital of a school community and thus should be viewed as positive
outcomes of the practice:
Restorative justice has been a powerful practice to use because it aligns with not only my
beliefs as a teacher, but my hopes for the future of my students. . . . Working with my
students in a restorative way means [producing] a generation of students who are productive
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members of my community and society and not students who become community members
of the prison system. 3rd/4th Grade Intervention Teacher, CASA
The underlying assumption of restorative justice is that students who commit delinquent or
offensive acts are breaching the social contract between them and the school community. That
social contract cannot be restored if the breaching party is absentthat is, if the schools first
and most frequent response is to ban the offender from the community. The inclusive
community-based framework of restorative justice lies in sharp contrast to exclusionary
discipline policies. As it has no restorative component, it is not surprising that disciplinary
exclusion fails to correct student misbehavior and often leads to increased student suspensions,
poor academic achievement, a loss of reputation among peers, social isolation, psychological
problems, and ultimately, juvenile delinquency (Skiba et al., 2011). Restorative practices
emphasize the importance of relationships, which is also at the heart of several other promising
interventions for reducing the discipline gap.
Restorative justice is often perceived as a particular way for a school community to respond
to a student who has caused damage or harm to a person or property. As the DPS case study
illustrates, the practice of restorative justice in schools can be much more. In the most effective
schools, the integration of a continuum model aims not only to restore harms to the community
but also to build social capital, improve academic performance, and promote a safer school
environment. A continuum model entails the incorporation of diverse practices, ranging from
brief informal teacherstudent exchanges to formal conferences to address misbehavior and
resulting consequences. This model provides educators with a more comprehensive set of tools
to address the wide range of issues and offenses schools regularly face. In DPS, the continuum
model,1 which includes frequent proactive restorative exchanges, affective statements, questions,
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informal conferences, large group circles, and conferences, has been found to have the greatest
impact.
Other studies of restorative justice also suggest that a comprehensive continuum model is
likely to be highly effective, as it is designed to increase student engagement and transform the
entire school environment (Morrison, 2007; Morrison, Blood, & Thorsborne, 2005; Wachtel,
2001). Although this study was not designed to compare the outcomes of different models of
restorative justice, the qualitative analysis does suggest that greatest benefits are achieved when
schools employ the practices they find to have the greatest impact.
EXAMINING RESTORATIVE JUSTICE IN DENVER PUBLIC SCHOOLS
This study provides a descriptive analysis of the integration and implementation of school-based
restorative justice practices in Denver Public Schools since 2003. Empirical data used in this
study include data collected by DPS beginning in 2003. In 2006, DPS administered surveys and
questionnaires and conducted interviews with DPS employees who were engaged in the pilot
implementation of restorative justice. In 2009 I began conducting qualitative interviews at North
High School (NHS), George Washington High School, Montbello High School, and in 2011,
Cole Arts and Sciences Academy (CASA). Interview subjects included students, teachers, staff
members, community members, administrators, and DPS restorative justice practitioners.
Observations of restorative mediations conferences and circles occurred from 2009 to 2013. Data
also were drawn from the observations of participants in more than 1,300 restorative justice
cases, the development and practice of training restorative justice coordinators in DPS, and the
implementation of discipline systems oriented to comprehensive restorative justice at NHS and
CASA.
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As findings in Table 10.1, Figure 10.1, and Figure 10.2 indicate, between 2006 and 2013
DPS reduced the districts overall suspension rate from 10.58% to 5.63%, as well as the
suspension rates for each subgroup. Although racial disparities in the district still must be
addressed, suspension rates for African Americans fell 7.2% during this period, the largest
reduction in absolute terms, which contributed to the narrowing of the racial discipline gap
depicted most clearly in Figure 10.2. Most notable is that the African American/White gap
decreased by almost 4 percentage points, from nearly a 12-point gap in 2006 to just over an 8-
point gap in 2013. Both Latinos and Whites saw reductions in their rates, whereas the
Latino/White gap also decreased.
Table 10.1. Total Suspensions, Enrollment, and Suspension Rates by Race (2006-2013)
Year
Total
Unduplicated
Suspensions
Enrollment
DPS
Suspension
Rate
African
American
Suspension Rate
White
Suspension
Rate
20062007
7,090
66,960
10.58%
17.61%
5.88%
20072008
6,739
67,324
10%
16.46%
4.62%
20082009
6,432
72,005
8.93%
14.79%
3.78%
20092010
5,944
76,090
7.81%
15.20%
2.94%
20102011
5,969
78,354
7.62%
14.90%
2.95%
20112012
5,515
81,392
6.78%
12.70%
2.83%
20122013
4,751
84,424
5.63%
10.42%
2.28%
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Figure 10.1.Suspension Rates by Race (2006-2013)
Figure 10.2.Racial Gap in Suspension Rates (2006-2013)
The impact of restorative justice was especially significant at some schools. At CASA,
suspension rates for all African American students decreased 14 points, from 16.89% in 2011
2012 to 2.86% in 20122013, after schoolwide implementation of restorative practices. At
Abraham Lincoln High School (ALHS), the suspension rate for African American male students
in 20062007 was 24.4%; by 20092010 it had decreased 18 points, to 6.25%. The use of
restorative practices also affected the suspension rates for Latino male students at ALHS, which
decreased over 5 points during those years, from 11.67% to 6.38%. At NHS, the overall
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suspension rate, which was 14.12% in 2006, fell over 8 points by 20122103, to 5.91%. The
suspension rate for African American male students at NHS fell almost 15 points during the
same period, from 19.35% to 4.55%.
THE IMPLEMENTATION OF RESTORATIVE JUSTICE
IN DENVER’S PUBLIC SCHOOLS
The implementation of restorative practices in DPS began as an intervention response to the
rapid rise in suspensions and expulsions; from 2001 to 2005, the number of out-of-school
suspensions (OSS) rose from 9,846 to 13,487. Implementation of restorative practices began in
2003 with a single-year pilot project at Cole Middle School (CMS). In 2006, DPS embarked on a
multischool project, targeting schools with the highest rates of racial disproportionality in
discipline. In late 2007, DPS established district-level processes to support practices developed at
the early school sites to facilitate more effective implementation in additional schools. In 2009,
DPS reoriented restorative justice from a model of intervention to one of prevention. DPS now
regards restorative justice as a districtwide practice that promotes positive change in the school
culture at all levels.
Since 2006, DPS has adopted both bottom-up and top-down strategies that provide key
models for urban school policymakers. At the district level, restorative justice has benefited from
having continued central office support. At the individual school level, restorative justice has
benefited from having dedicated principals, deans, school resource officers, teachers, and parents
who are committed to alternative responses to misbehavior and conflict. Furthermore, the
implementation of restorative justice in Denver could not have occurred without a sustained
partnership with the community-based organization, Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. Padres y Jóvenes
Unidoss campaigns for racial justice and educational equity have created accountability for DPS
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(González, 2011). Further, Padres y Jóvenes Unidos has provided significant input into the
development of effective and culturally responsive discipline models.
After 10 years of employing restorative approaches and practices, the key lesson DPS learned
is that districts must approach implementation through a model that can be adapted to individual
communities and contexts. As the DPS experience illustrates, restorative justice is not a one-
size fits all process and thus should be implemented as part of a comprehensive multilevel
response to behavior problems and conflict. As the data suggest, by adopting a continuum model,
DPS was able to reduce racial disparities in school discipline every year for each racial group,
even in the earliest stages of implementation. Moreover, schools using restorative justice
practices often saw a positive impact on school safety. For example, from 2006 to 2008, NHS
averaged more than 50 fights per year; by 2010 that number had declined to 10 or 12. Other
schools, as discussed below, experienced significant academic gains as they implemented
restorative practices.
20032004: Cole Middle School Restorative Justice Pilot
In spring 2003, DPS adopted a 1-year pilot project at Cole Middle School. The CMS pilot was a
community-based restorative justice initiative implemented by VORP of Metro Denver and
funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The selection of the school
was simple: CMS was notorious for having the largest number of suspensions, tickets, and
arrests in the district. As a VORP of Metro Denver community organizer noted, [Cole] was
stereotyped as a gang factory where teachers would see students fighting in the hall and close
their door instead of intervening.
Models of practice at CMS included both victim offender mediation and large group circles.
Victim offender mediation required responsible and affected parties to sit together and work
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through an issue to repair the negative effects of a behavior, hold the responsible party
accountable, and empower victims to advocate for their needs. Large group circles at CMS were
used to address the concerns of several conflicting parties or situations in which many
individuals and parties shared responsibility.
Data reported by VORP of Metro Denver indicate that, in spring 2003, 11 of 14 cases of
fighting were referred to restorative intervention, and restorative agreements were reached in
each instance. Given these successes and the positive impact on school culture, restorative justice
was integrated into the CMS discipline protocols in fall 2004 and used as an alternative to
suspensions and police citations in specific cases. In December 2004, VORP of Metro Denver
reported that 95 students were referred to restorative justice in lieu of suspensions; 84% of these
students signed restorative agreements for conflicts ranging from trash talk to physical
altercations. By the end of the pilot, police citations had declined by 86% and suspensions by
over 40%. VORP reported that more than 200 students had been referred to restorative justice
and more than 80 agreements were signed and honored. In spring 2004, the school was awarded
the DPS Outstanding Safe School Award.
While the CMS project was a 1-year pilot, the results provided DPS administrators in the
Office of Prevention and Intervention Initiatives (OPII) the opportunity to seek support from the
Colorado Department of Education to begin a multiyear implementation of restorative justice.
20062009: Development of Multischool Restorative Practices
In 2006, DPS began whole-school implementation of restorative justice programs at North High
School and its three feeder middle schools: Skinner Middle School, Horace Mann Middle
School, and Lake Middle School. These schools represented 10% of the DPS secondary school
students (2,599). Like CMS, all four schools were identified as high need, as they had some of
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the districts highest number of suspensions, tickets, and arrests. In 2007, implementation was
expanded to include Abraham Lincoln High School, Rishel Middle School, and Kunsmiller
Middle School.
Data from each school suggested positive disproportionality outcomes. For example, all four
of the initial pilot schools showed a consistent decrease in expulsions, from 23 in 20052006 to 6
in 20072008 (Baker, 2008). In 20082009, 1,235 students were referred to the restorative
justice program, and a total of 223 cases were resolved without out-of school suspension (Baker,
2009). Eleven additional cases resulted in reduced suspension time (Baker, 2009). As Table 12.1
indicates, overall suspensions declined by 5,400 during this period.
During this time, OPII refined the restorative justice models and developed short- and long-
term strategies for districtwide implementation. Adopting a new approach to implementation,
OPII hired full-time restorative justice coordinators in each new pilot school. Consistent with
prior research findings, OPII believed that developing close relationships among the restorative
justice coordinator, school resource officer, teachers, and administrators was essential to
implementation success. As the qualitative analysis has revealed, this approach was critical to the
positive transition from one-dimensional models of practice to a comprehensive continuum
model, including formal and informal restorative practices.
Consistent with a continuum approach, models of practice at each school varied. At NHS, for
example, restorative dialogues, preventative classroom circles, mediations, conferences, group
conferences, and student-led circles were all used in a continuum of practice. ALHS focused on
more traditional student mediation to address student conflicts, both before and after incidents.
SMS adopted a model similar to NHS but limited the use of restorative practices to certain
offenses specifically defined within the discipline matrix. Though each approach varied, all were
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consistent in adopting a restorative approach and promoting whole-school implementation.
Although different practices were implemented, focusing on each school communitys unique
needs, three core practices emerged: restorative justice dialogues, restorative conferencing, and
restorative circles. The use of each restorative practice aligned with the specific issue and its
impact on individuals and the school community.
In DPS, a restorative dialogue is a one-on-one conversation between two members of the
school community, such as a teacher and a student, guided by restorative justice questions. Such
interventions are used when the student behavior correlates with the first step of the discipline
ladder. For example, restorative mediations are used when both parties bear equal responsibility
for an incident (e.g., a fight). A restorative conference occurs when a third party, such as a
restorative justice coordinator, facilitates a conference between two parties. The conference is
structured to allow facilitated dialogue, in which the parties take turns answering basic
restorative questions until an agreement is reached.
Restorative conferences are similar to dialogues but occur when responsibility for an incident
is shared unequally between parties, such as bullying. During a restorative conference, the third-
party facilitator works to correct an imbalance of power between the parties and create a
structure to protect the victim. Restorative circles, defined as group conferences in other settings,
are used for incidents involving multiple parties. Restorative circles are implemented in a similar
manner to restorative conferences in that each party takes turns answering basic restorative
questions. In contrast to a two-party restorative conference, participants are arranged in
nonadversarial positions and answer questions in the order in which they are sitting. In DPS,
restorative circles also include members of the school community who were indirectly affected
by an incident. Restorative circles are most commonly used in classrooms to support learning
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outcomes, set boundaries, and develop positive relationships. As such, their use is directly linked
to managing curriculum, pedagogy, and behavior. The following narrative captures the
transformative nature of restorative practice:
In 2011, several 9th-grade football players became involved in throwing each other into
dumpsters at the end of the day. At some point, they decided to begin to intimidate and grab
other students who were not willing participants, and throw them in. These students felt
harassed and intimidated by this process. After their parents found out this was happening,
they called the school, irate about their childrens experience. Instead of responding in a
punitive manner, the school discipline team decided to begin with a restorative circle
involving all the students. The restorative justice coordinator chose a circle so that a larger
community could be involved with the discipline process. The circle included football
players who had thrown other students in the dumpster, football players not involved but
aware of the actions of their teammates, students who were thrown in the dumpsters, the
school dean (disciplinarian), a guidance counselor, the school social worker, the school
resource officer, and the principal. During the circle, participants used restorative justice to
guide their dialogue. They talked about what happened, how it affected the students who
were thrown in the dumpster against their will, the larger school community, their parents,
school personnel, and the reputation of the football team. The students and adults worked
together to build empathy and understand the full impact of such adolescent behavior. When
it came time to address accountability, the football players owned up to what they had done
and how it could have been perceived as bullying or harmful to other students. The
nonparticipating football players expressed their disappointment in being bystanders and
their failure to show leadership in what they knew were poor choices. The school personnel
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took responsibility for the lack of supervision and their failure to educate the students about
the potential dangers of unwanted physical behavior. When asked how to fix the situation,
the football players volunteered to miss the homecoming game to demonstrate how seriously
they took their behavior. Several also volunteered to speak at a class meeting about their
behavior, apologize to the school community, apologize to the individual students, and make
it clear that this behavior would not happen again.
This narrative exemplifies the implementation experience in DPS. Although the circle
required participants to meet for only about 45 minutes, the impact on the school community
lasted beyond 2011. In fact, the school principal noted, If we had not done restorative justice,
there would have been more incidents this year. By making a public commitment to everyone in
the circle, these students took it seriously and felt accountable to more than just a small group of
adults who punished them. Furthermore, had the school employed a retributive approach to
discipline the offending students, who were predominately Latino and African American male
students, they would have faced OSS for 3 to 5 days and potential police citations. Moreover, as
qualitative analysis has revealed, these students would have been less likely to accept
responsibility for their actions or to engage in activities to promote a safer school community. By
using restorative justice, school officials were able to foster the development of healthy,
meaningful, and safe peer-to-peer relationships.
In addition to developing sustained restorative practices in the pilot schools, the OPII began
to revise the DPS discipline policy to formally incorporate restorative principles into all
discipline processes. The OPII recognized that, without a formal districtwide shift from
retributive practices, implementing a sustained restorative justice program would be challenging.
The process of revising the discipline policy was key to the successful implementation of
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restorative justice, from the early pilot stages to becoming a normalized disciplinary practice in
DPS.
20072013: District-Wide Expansion of Restorative Practices and Policies
Several interconnected occurrences supported the eventual transformation of restorative justice
in DPS from an isolated program to a districtwide philosophical and values-based approach and
practice. These included the 2008 discipline policy reform, the creation of a practitioner-based
restorative justice training to support implementation in additional schools, increased community
accountability, reorganization of and increased support from the central district office, a
districtwide focus on disproportionality and equity, and the 2013 revised Intergovernmental
Agreement between the Denver Public Schools and the Denver Police Department. Furthermore,
the OPII developed new structures for guaranteeing consistency and transparency in data
collection to document student behavior and the restorative practices used.
The 2008 revisions to the DPS discipline policy included several key changes. The policy
explicitly sanctioned restorative justice as an intervention strategy focused on the opportunity to
learn from their [students] mistakes, and re-engage the student in learning. In fact, the policy
identifies the use of restorative justice interventions as problem solving interventions done
with the offender, in contrast to different administrative interventions all involving some
degree of removal, done to the offender (Policy JK-R, 2008). Moreover, the policy states that
disciplinary practices in DPS will address the needs of the student who engaged in the
misconduct, the needs of those who were affected by the misconduct, and the needs of the
overall school community.
The policy locates these restorative justice efforts within the context of addressing
disproportionality:
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Efforts shall be made to eliminate any racial disparities in school discipline. Staff members
are specifically charged with monitoring the impact of their actions on students from racial
and ethnic groups or other protected classes that have historically been over-represented
among those students who are suspended, expelled, or referred to law enforcement (Policy
JK-R, 2008).
The policy also states, schools should minimize the use of out-of-school suspensions,
recommendations for expulsion, and referrals to law enforcement, to the extent practicable while
remaining consistent with state statute, local ordinances, and mandatory reporting laws. As
discussed above, restorative justice practices at NHS were often used in lieu of suspensions or in
conjunction with reduced suspension time. Moreover, OSS were limited under the revised policy
to be consistent with restorative practice, and if previous interventions have not been successful,
the principal or principals designee may consider the use of an in-school suspension of 1-3 days
or a one-day out-of-school suspension (Policy JK-R, 2007).
By grounding disciplinary practices within a restorative rather than a retributive framework,
schools have been able to impact disproportionality and foster positive school culture more
effectively. For example, before the 2008 revisions, OSS was assigned for 3 to 5 days following
a severe misbehavior, such as a fight. Under the revised policy, schools opted to assign shorter
OSS in conjunction with employing restorative practices when students reentered school.
Consider NHS, where the average OSS decreased from 3 days to less than 1 day beginning in
2006. Interviews at NHS revealed that this practice also changed the character of suspension.
Under the prior policy, the tone when the student returned to the community was adversarial. By
using a more restorative approach, students were prepared on their return to begin a process to
resolve the issue at hand.
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As the qualitative data reflect, this process ultimately allowed the school to change its culture
and its approach to discipline, and to heal staffstudent relationships. Administrators, teachers,
and students at NHS have all attributed the change in culture to the use of restorative practices to
create accountability and promote meaningful relationships. Although quantitative data cannot
capture the interpersonal experiences, suspension rates declined at NHS from 14.12% to 5.91%
by 20122013.
In 2009, DPS also began revising the teacher-evaluation systems, increasing accountability
for punitive disciplinary responses, and implementing leadership development. In addition to
these internal reforms, the OPII began a comprehensive districtwide training focused on
implementation of individualized restorative justice practices under the revised discipline policy.
As interviews with teachers revealed, there was a high demand for restorative justice trainings
specifically for teachers to promote positive academic experiences and behaviors. The trainings
were developed by restorative justice coordinators and emphasized an individualized approach to
restorative practices for school communities.
In 2009, additional trainings were offered two to three times a year and were attended by
school disciplinarians, administrators, and mental health professionals. By 2011, an average of
500 people, including teachers, parents, and students, attended monthly restorative justice
trainings. DPS continues to experiment with best practices and ways to offer this training to
deepen and improve restorative justice practices. In 20122013, 75% of Denver schools reported
having at least one person trained in restorative justice facilitation and that they were using
restorative justice practices to address discipline in their school.
In 2011, DPS reorganized the OPII into the Department of Mental Health and Assessment in
Student Services. This reorganization led to key changes, which further developed districtwide
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restorative justice practices. Most important, restorative justice implementation shifted from the
intervention and prevention model of individual school practitioner to a team of mental health
support specialists engaged in whole-school implementation. The goal of the teams is to create
equitable disciplinary outcomes through a range of practices. At the center of all of these
practices are restorative principles.
In addition to the internal changes supporting this holistic implementation, in 2013 the
Denver Police Department and DPS reached an agreement that clarified the role of school
resource officers (Intergovernmental Agreement, 2013). The agreement refines and limits the
role of the school resource officers and specifically delineates DPSs commitment to restorative
justice rather than punitive discipline. The agreement also establishes increased due process
protections for students and parents, requires school resource officers to meet regularly with
community groups, and requires school resource officers be trained in restorative justice, child
and adolescent development, and conflict de-escalation.
As DPS continues to implement restorative justice in its schools, it is clear that the use of
restorative approaches should not be viewed as a program. Instead, the whole-district
implementation reflects a paradigm shift that views restorative justice as another tool to
effectively educate students. DPS thus considers conflict or misconduct not as an opportunity to
suspend or expel but to teach and learn by promoting connections and positive communities. One
NHS teachers reflection captures this idea:
When other teachers ask me why I use restorative justice with my students, my answer is
simple. It changes how my students learn. . . . It used to be that we would try to push conflict
outside the classroom door by suspending or removing a student in some way, but that does
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not resolve the conflict, it just makes it worse when that same student walks back through
your door.
DENVER PUBLIC SCHOOLS AS A MODEL
FOR IMPLEMENTING RESTORATIVE JUSTICE
Many positive outcomes have been realized in Denver, but the implementation of restorative
justice in the district is far from over. As it moves forward, the long-term DPS vision focuses not
only on sustainability but on striving for greater equity in its educational and disciplinary
practices, and on developing deeper relationships within the community. In this context, DPS is
committed to continued collaboration with diverse stakeholders to develop effective top-down
and bottom-up strategies to address racial disproportionality, build social capital, promote school
engagement, and improve academic performance.
The experience in Denver provides valuable insights for policymakers seeking to implement
restorative justice as an alternative to racially disproportionate disciplinary practices. Schools
seeking to address disproportionality in discipline through restorative justice should envision a 4-
to 6-year implementation plan that focuses on six key areas: (1) establishing specific reasons for
implementation and buy-in from key members of the school community; (2) developing a clear
institutional vision with short-, medium-, and long-term goals; (3) creating a responsive,
effective, and adaptive practice; (4) adopting a districtwide disciplinary policy and discipline
practices that integrate restorative justice; (5) developing school-based discipline practices that
promote a whole-school approach rather than a program-based model; and (6) investing in a
continuous system of growth and professional development for all members of the school
community.
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Finally, it should be noted that between 2009 and 2013 DPS showed a steady and substantial
increase in the percentage of students scoring proficient or above on statewide tests in reading,
writing, and math in all grades tested (310), with the exception of grade-8 reading. In 2013, the
district made overall gains from 2009 of 4 percentage points in reading, 7 points in math, 6
points in writing, and 9 points in science. Furthermore, the average ACT scores in DPS increased
from 15.4 to 17.6. On-time graduation rates also increased, from 46.4% (2009) to 51.8% (2010).
During the same time, high school dropout rates decreased from 11.1% (2006) to 6.4% (2010).
This trend is consistent with other studies showing that, after controlling for poverty and other
factors, lower suspending districts had higher test scores. There is no question that, during a
period of significantly reducing the use of suspension in DPS, gains were made in academic
achievement in all subjects in nearly every grade. These gains might be merely coincidental or
the result of changes in other policies, but this academic growth should allay fears that reducing
suspensions will create a chaotic and less productive learning environment. Although this study
of DPS did not put the hypothesis to the test, it seems plausible that by reducing the discipline
gap Denver also reduced the achievement gap.
NOTES
The author would like to recognize Benjamin Cairns for his substantial contributions and
collaboration on this project since 2009. Without his commitment to the research, capturing the diverse
experiences in Denver would not have been possible.
1. Prior research on restorative practices in DPS provides a more detailed description of the
continuum model (González, 2011; González, 2012).
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Denver Public Schools & Denver Police Department. (2013). Intergovernmental agreement
concerning the funding, implementation, and administration of programs involving police
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suspension rates for black and white high school students. American Educational Research
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Morrison, B. E. (2007). Restoring safe school communities. Sydney, Australia: Federation.
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... It may be the case that models of implementation, which work for one school community, will not be easily transferrable to others. To aid with this goodness of fit for each community, scholars emphasise the need for top-down and bottomup support and development specific to the context for sustainable integration of RJ within a community or school system (Berkowitz, 2012;González, 2015;Zehr, 2014). ...
... Despite this recent promise from the experimental trial in Pittsburgh, other studies suggest the RJ's promise of reducing disparities may not always be realised. For example, studies in Denver have shown a reduction in exclusionary discipline (i.e., suspensions and expulsions) when RJ is introduced (González, 2015), and that students who participate in restorative conferences are less likely to be re-suspended than their discipline-referred peers who do not participate in conferences (Anyon et al., 2014;Anyon et al., 2016;Gregory et al., 2017). Yet, this research also suggests that tier 3 restorative interventions, a narrow form of RJ, are not sufficient to reduce the over-representation of Black students receiving suspension (Anyon et al., 2014;Anyon et al., 2016;Gregory et al., 2017). ...
... In the last twenty years, RJ has become an increasingly common initiative in US schools, largely in response to overused and disproportionate zero-tolerance exclusionary discipline (Fronius et al., 2019). Correlational research and small-scale qualitative studies point to positive outcomes of RJ in schools including reduced overall discipline rates (e.g., González, 2015), narrowed disparities in exclusionary discipline (Evans & Gregory, 2020), and improved school climate (e.g., Sumner, Silverman, & Frampton, 2010). More recently, RJ research in education has begun evaluating impacts of RJ using experimental trials (Acosta et al., 2016;Augustine et al., 2018). ...
... These discussions occur within Community Circles with a formal protocol, to develop empathy and conflict resolution skills, By restoring trusting relationships with a focus on reintegration and inclusion, Restorative Justice practices have shown a reduction of office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions (Gonzales, 2015;Koon, 2013;Simson, 2014). Nevertheless, there is limited research on Restorative Justice's efficacy in specifically reducing racialized, disproportionate disciplinealthough the limited case studies are positive (Gonzalez, 2015;Koon, 2013). The infrastructure and training requirements make this approach budget intensive and buy-in can be difficult if the process disrupts existing hierarchies of power (Simson, 2014). ...
... Adding elements of the equity-based, relationship-building, and reparative aspects of Restorative Justice practices to the mix would enable the supportive community for the necessary dialogue on race, oppression, and racial bias (Gonzalez, 2015). A growing research base agrees with the potential of Restorative Justice practices and Culturally Responsive strategies in addressing the needs of a racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse THE DISCIPLINE GAP 19 learning population when combined with SWPBIS and SEL (Bal, 2016;Evans, Lester, & Anfara, 2013;Koon, 2013;Levy, 2018;Skiba, 2015;Simson, 2014;Vincent, Sprague, & Gau, 2014). ...
... The findings raise questions about possible sequential change processes in equity-oriented initiatives. Given whole school RP initiatives may require 3-5 years to become established (Glenn et al., 2020;González, 2015;Mansfield et al., 2018), one might speculate about a developmental process as RP Coordinators establish trusting relationships with and among school staff in their firstyear consulting in a school. As RP Coordinators initiate courageous conversations on equity and raise awareness about how bias operates, they may be setting the groundwork for shifts in practice toward more equitable policy and practice in subsequent years. ...
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The current study addressed the need for experimental research on Restorative Practices (RP) in its evaluation of the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility's Whole School RP Project. The study was conducted in a large Northeastern city using a cluster randomized controlled design in 18 elementary, middle, and high schools. In a single year, before the COVID-19 pandemic, and with data from 5878 students, the study found that overall, students in the RP Project schools were less likely to receive a discipline incident record (11.1%) as compared to students in the comparison schools (18.2%). However, differential treatment effects based on sex, race/ethnicity, and disability status were not found. The findings suggest prevention efforts are a cornerstone of practice/policy reforms to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline. Findings also suggest multi-year initiatives are needed to address discipline disparities.
... Suspensions, a measure of disengagement, has been linked to an increased risk for depression (Rushton et al., 2002), and schools with exclusionary discipline policies tend to have students with lower rates of academic connection and sense of belonging in their classrooms (McNeely et al., 2002). Generally, evidence in the field also suggests that school programs focused on SEL development and restorative justice practices can also lead to reductions in absenteeism and/or suspensions (Durlak et al., 2011;Belfield et al., 2015;Jones et al., 2015;González, 2015). ...
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Noncognitive constructs such as self-efficacy, social awareness, and academic engagement are widely acknowledged as critical components of human capital, but systematic data collection on such skills in school systems is complicated by conceptual ambiguities, measurement challenges and resource constraints. This study addresses this issue by comparing the predictive validity of two most widely used metrics on noncogntive outcomes-observable academic behaviors (e.g., absenteeism, suspensions) and student self-reported social and emotional learning (SEL) skills-for the likelihood of high school graduation and postsecondary attainment. Our findings suggest that conditional on student demographics and achievement , academic behaviors are several-fold more predictive than SEL skills for all long-run outcomes, and adding SEL skills to a model with academic behaviors improves the model's predictive power minimally. In addition, academic behaviors are particularly strong pre-dictors for low-achieving students' long-run outcomes. Part-day absenteeism (as a result of class skipping) is the largest driver behind the strong predictive power of academic behaviors. Developing more nuanced behavioral measures in existing administrative data systems might be a fruitful strategy for schools whose intended goal centers on predicting students' educational attainment.
... Activism spearheaded by students, families, and educators within the U.S. education system has promoted transitions away from zero-tolerance policies by emphasizing their discriminatory outcomes and moving schools towards the alternative framework of restorative justice (Fernández et al., 2016). Restorative justice is commonly regarded as an approach that can effectively address racial disparities in school punishment via practices grounded within its principles of addressing harm and cultivating a supportive school culture (González, 2015;Sandwick et al., 2019). However, there is ongoing concern regarding restorative justice's ability to end the disproportionate punishment of Black students while both individual biases and structural inequities remain entrenched within and outside the immediate school environment. ...
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A popular alternative disciplinary framework from zero-tolerance school policies is restorative justice, which refers to a set of ideologies and practices that emphasize healing relationships in lieu of community exclusion. This work investigates the differences between ideological support for restorative approaches compared to program implementation. We conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews with school staff, including teachers, administrators , and security officials, at five urban high schools in the Chicago metropolitan region. Our findings highlight sharp divergences in buy-in for restorative justice and perceptions on the appropriateness of various disciplinary approaches, illuminating both barriers and opportunities towards schoolwide restorative justice program implementation.
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To understand the factors that impact classroom application of restorative practice circles, this study asks, (1) how do educators apply restorative practices? and (2) what supports and barriers emerge during the daily application of restorative practices in schools? Guided by ecological systems theory and a mixed-methods approach, we use correlation analysis, ethnographic fieldnotes and interviews to demonstrate (1) significant associations between teacher circle constructs and how it impacts student circle constructs and overall circle quality, (2) the development of multifaceted support approaches for teachers, and (3) barriers in the daily minutia of restorative practices.
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This chapter describes the importance of restorative justice and peace education for addressing conflict and building a positive climate within schools. This approach has the potential to transform experiences for all school community members in ways that promote peace through relationship-centric social organization and end punitive systems of oppression that disproportionately disadvantage children of colour. This chapter reviews recent research on school climate and discipline to support the theoretical argument that restorative justice can promote peace by decreasing disorder and increasing equality through a culture of respect and care for all. Scholarship on the systemic impact of punitive discipline is reviewed, with a particular focus on how it deepens social injustice for youth of colour. When a whole-school approach to restorative justice is implemented, members of the school community have healthier and more harmonious experiences that are freer from oppression and conflict. Students experience greater academic success and psychological and emotional health. Additionally, their chances of being bullied or harmed are lower, and they are less likely to violate rules or laws. Given the value of equality in establishing peace and justice, it is particularly noteworthy that a restorative approach also produces fewer disparities between white students and those of colour. This chapter applies a peace-building perspective on the findings of prior research on school climate and discipline, concluding that restorative justice increases both positive and negative peace. Thus, researchers and practitioners should consider how peace education and restorative justice can be expanded in schools.
Chapter
This chapter will analyze school disciplinary actions across large metropolitan school districts. In recent decades, K-12 school disciplinary practices have garnered national attention from researchers, policymakers, and educators. Racial disparity among school discipline raises serious questions about continued violations of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision. The purpose of the chapter is to provide a series of evidence-supported recommendations for the dismantling of the school-to-prison pipeline. The current chapter will examine the discipline records for the 2016-2017 academic school year in 19 independent school districts to identify the equitable assignment of suspensions and expulsions. Disparity ratio analysis will help us understand the relationship between race, ethnicity, and school suspension. The findings will be utilized to guide policy recommendations. The results will provide an evidence-based understanding of racial disparity in school suspensions.
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In Rhode Island, out-of-school suspensions were excessively and disproportionately used to penalize low-level infractions. To address this problem, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed legislation, effective May 2012, prohibiting out-of-school suspensions for attendance-specific infractions. Four years later, the Assembly passed additional legislation to curb out-of-school suspensions for disruption-specific infractions. This study examines the impact of these suspension reforms on out-of-school suspension outcomes for treatment infractions and corresponding racial-ethnic disparities. To execute the analyses, the study uses student-level administrative data (AY 2009–2010 to AY 2017–2018) from the Rhode Island Department of Education, along with quasi-experimental estimation. The study finds that only the first reform lowers out-of-school suspension outcomes for attendance-specific infractions and corresponding racial-ethnic disparities.
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Emphasized by the fallout of the pandemic, critical math scholars have long-since called for resistance to the cultural marginalization, systemic racism and violence of math instruction by crafting a liberatory and humanizing mathematics education. In response to that call, this paper illuminates the theoretical connections between the frameworks of two relational approaches to schooling, Restorative Justice in Education (RJE) and Cognitively Guided Instruction in Mathematics (CGI). Through discussing the intersections of the components of both frameworks and their shared vision of equity and agency for all students, this paper argues that integrating restorative justice into math instruction is not only possible, but necessary.
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Discipline practices in schools affect the social quality of each educational environment, and the ability of children to achieve the academic and social gains essential for success in a 21st century society. We review the documented patterns of office discipline referrals in 364 elementary and middle schools during the 2005-2006 academic year. Data were reported by school personnel through daily or weekly uploading of office discipline referrals using the Web-based School-wide Information System. Descriptive and logistic regression analyses indicate that students from African American families are 2.19 (elementary) to 3.78 (middle) times as likely to be referred to the office for problem behavior as their White peers. In addition, the results indicate that students from African American and Latino families are more likely than their White peers to receive expulsion or out of school suspension as consequences for the same or similar problem behavior. These results extend and are consistent with a long history of similar findings, and argue for direct efforts in policy, practice, and research to address ubiquitous racial and ethnic disparities in school discipline.
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This study examined the relationship between structure and support in the high school climate and suspension rates in a statewide sample of 199 schools. School climate surveys completed by 5,035 ninth grade students measured characteristics of authoritative schools, defined as highly supportive, yet highly structured with academic and behavioral expectations. Multivariate analyses showed that schools low on characteristics of an authoritative school had the highest schoolwide suspension rates for Black and White students after statistically controlling for school demographics. Furthermore, schools low on both structure and support had the largest racial discipline gaps. These findings highlight the characteristics of risky settings that may not meet the developmental needs of adolescents and may contribute to disproportionate disciplinary outcomes for Black students.
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This paper will introduce a whole-school approach to regulating safe school communities, based on principles of restorative justice. The idea is to move beyond regulatory formalism to a stance of response regulation, whereby the needs of the school community can be better met. The approach will incorporate a continuum of practices across three levels of regulation. The primary level of intervention targets all students, with an aim to develop students’ social and emotional competencies, particularly in the area of conflict resolution. This first stage aims to enable students to resolve their differences in caring and respectful ways. The secondary level of practices involves a larger number of participants in the resolution of the conflict or concern, as the problem has become protracted or has involved (and affected) a larger number of people. The tertiary level of intervention involves the participation of an even wider cross-section of the school community, including parents, guardians, social workers, and others who have been affected. This intervention is typically used for serious incidents within the school, such as acts of serious violence. At each level, the processes involved are based on principles of restorative justice, such as inclusive and respectful dialogue. The aim is to build safe school communities through being more responsive and more restorative.
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Article
The practice of restorative justice in schools has the capacity to build social and human capital through challenging students in the context of social and emotional learning. While restorative justice was originally introduced to schools to address serious incidents of misconduct and harmful behavior, the potential this philosophy offers is much greater. The conviction is that the key challenge for schools is addressing the culture change required to make the shift from traditional discipline, driven by punitive (or rewards based) external motivators, to restorative discipline, driven by relational motivators that seeks to empower individuals and their communities. Copyright Springer Science + Business Media, Inc. 2005
Article
Vygotsky regarded the site of learning to be within a matrix of relational action. From this perspective, learning social responsibility will involve a focus on the learning environments that are made available in schools. Adapting the concept of restorative justice to a school context, restorative practice offers a range of relevant learning opportunities. These learning opportunities relate to episodes of wrong‐doing, and to actions that reflect the values and principles of a socially responsible school culture. The importance of dialogue, respect for “the other” and social collaboration will be evident in school‐based restorative practices.
DPS restorative justice project executive summary
  • M L Baker
Baker, M. L. (2008, August 31). DPS restorative justice project executive summary 2007-2008.
DPS Restorative Justice Project: Year Three. Year End Report
  • M L Baker
Baker, M. L. (2009, September 16). DPS Restorative Justice Project: Year Three. Year End Report 2008-2009. Denver, CO: Denver Public Schools.
Restoring justice: Community organizing to transform school discipline policies. U.C
  • T González
González, T. (2011). Restoring justice: Community organizing to transform school discipline policies. U.C. Davis Journal of Law and Policy 15, 1-36.
Restoring safe school communities
  • B E Morrison
Morrison, B. E. (2007). Restoring safe school communities. Sydney, Australia: Federation.