Efforts have increased nationally to train educators to use restorative justice practices as an alternative to suspension. But finding and keeping funding for these programs is challenging. For example, budget cuts in the Oakland Unified School District ended its 10-year-old restorative justice program, EdSource reports.
Restorative justice reduces suspensions and expulsions and focuses on student accountability to repair any damage they may have done.
Critics say the practice has not been a good replacement for punitive punishments and that teachers still need traditional discipline approaches to keep classrooms in control.
Despite funding challenges, restorative justice programs have been making their way into many districts across the country. The practice encourages reparations over punishments. During restorative justice sessions, the offenders and victims talk about their feelings and perspectives to reach a place of respect and understanding.
Teacher training is a part of making these sessions productive, which is why loss of funding can hinder their effectiveness. A small survey of 29 classrooms showed that when teachers were trained in the skill, students had stronger relationships with the teachers and that led to fewer disciplinary problems. In addition, restorative practices may foster an environment that is more conducive to learning. According to psychotherapist Jacquelyn Richards, student confrontations ignite the “fight, flight, freeze or submit” response, which is disruptive to learning.
These programs can also reduce the number of days that students are suspended, especially in elementary school and among black students. The practice has been used to reduce racial disparities in discipline, since black students are much more likely to be suspended than their white peers.
While the approach has many supporters, some teachers feel it is too soft for repeat offenders, especially those with mental health issues. Either way, it will important for district officials to collect data on the outcomes to be sure the practice is actually reducing negative behavior.