Since I joined the School Board in January, there hasn’t been a week that’s gone by when I haven’t been part of a conversation about mental health and school safety.
Locally and nationally, we have data confirming that many of our young people are struggling, socially and mentally. And that struggle manifests in many ways: anxiety, depression, self-harm, truancy, substance abuse, withdrawal, bullying, fighting and more.(1)
“We’re seeing a lot of juvenile behavior this year,” Martin Urbach, a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City, told me during a Zoom conversation a few weeks ago. “Misbehavior in class, throwing things, horsing around. Also more interpersonal issues—many students have lost the ability to socialize.” He’s also concerned about behaviors stemming from deep trauma that many students have experienced. “Life is not OK.”
I reached out to Martin because I had visited his school in 2018 and 2019. At the time, I was struck by the strong culture they’d created in a public high school serving predominantly students of color and students from lower-income families. I was curious how the school was faring since the onset of COVID.
Martin, who now works full-time as the school’s restorative justice coordinator, told me that it has been “exhausting.” The 31 students trained in peer mediation at Harvest have run more than 200 restorative justice circles this year—a significant increase over prior years.
In response to what they’re seeing, Martin and his students (at Harvest they’re called “Circle Keepers”) have added a mentorship component to their restorative justice work.Every 10th grade Circle Keeper is mentoring a 9th grader who’s been involved in a circle due to concerning behavior. Amber, one of the 10th grade mentors, told me, “I want them to think of me friend-wise, and just to be there to help them whenever they need.”
Martin, Amber, and the other students involved in Harvest’s restorative justice work are part of a larger movement to infuse restorative practices at schools across the country. Restorative justice is an approach that emphasizes mediation, helping students understand the causes and consequences of their behavior, and making amends for harm that was done in order to repair and restore relationships.
"We have to change the paradigm of how we look at ‘infractions,’” Martin told me when we talked earlier this month. “We reframe it from ‘rules are broken’ to ‘people are harmed.’”
Across the country at Balboa High School in San Francisco, principal Kevin Kerr has pinned to his bulletin board a list of five “restorative questions” to ask students in trouble. Among them is the one he considers most important: “What do you think needs to be done to make things as right as possible?”
Restorative practices are gaining traction as many school districts move away from the “zero-tolerance” exclusionary discipline popularized in previous decades. “In the ‘90s and 2000s, schools started cracking down on minor misbehavior,” said Aaron Kupchik, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware. “These behaviors posed no threat to student safety—talking back, cursing, dress code violations. Suspension became the normal reaction.”
In contrast, restorative justice aims to keep students integrated into the school community whenever possible. “We want to be sure they don’t think they’re throwaways,” Martin told me. Students can be suspended at Harvest, or even expelled, if restorative practices haven’t worked or if the school is legally required to suspend in response to certain behaviors (e.g., bringing a knife to school). But it’s widely understood to be the option of last resort, and the school follows specific restorative protocols when it’s time for the student to rejoin the school community.
I wasn’t sure if the uptick in concerning behaviors at Harvest this year (as in many other schools across the country) would have compelled school leaders to adopt more traditional discipline. I get it: school staff members are under tremendous pressure this year. Parents are worried. Police have been called to both of my own kids’ schools in the past few months in response to threats. Why, especially now, would anyone take on the extra work that real restorative justice requires?
The trouble with suspensions and the benefits of belonging
When a student is a danger to themselves or others, it’s absolutely appropriate to remove them to a setting where danger is minimized and they can get help. In theory, this is what suspension is supposed to accomplish.
In many US schools, however, it’s overused, and that has negative consequences for the whole school community.(2) Suspended students are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to be incarcerated. Students with disabilities and Black students are suspended at disproportionately high rates, and research has confirmed that this overrepresentation is because they are punished more harshly for similar offenses.
Are suspensions an effective deterrent to future misbehavior? No—in fact, they increase its likelihood. What does deter fighting, bullying, and other troubling behaviors are restorative practices.Recent, rigorous evaluations in Minnesota and California confirm that restorative approaches also improve academic performance.
This makes sense to me, because I believe that behavior is a form of communication, and “misbehavior” is a student trying to communicate that something is very wrong. Often it’s difficult (even for adults!) to articulate exactly what’s bothering us and what we need. It can take real time and effort to get to root causes and solutions, and sometimes that’s not our go-to response.
“Our instinct is to hate the other person,” says Tamar Shoshan, a junior at Manhattan Hunter Science High School in New York City. “Cancel culture plays a large part in that. We’re taught that if a person does one thing wrong, we label them as a bad person. [We have to] acknowledge that people are complex, and they have reasons for acting out.” We have to call them in—not call them out.
Seeing others this way requires curiosity, generosity and empathy—but without stinting on accountability. “Nobody is letting anybody off the hook,” said Balboa HS principal Kevin Kerr. “Whenever we have one of these restorative justice sessions, the perpetrator inevitably walks out of the room crying. That’s not our goal, but it’s just natural. We’re human beings, we’re going to have a sense of compassion for this person that we harmed, once we have a chance to see how our actions made them feel.”
What does it take to do it right?
Restorative justice is most effective when it’s part of a larger fabric of restorative practices in schools. “Restorative justice” is commonly understood to be a method for intervening in response to specific conflicts or misdeeds—it’s often reactive. “Restorative practices” encompass a larger set of tactics that schools can use to proactively build strong communities.
Schools that have a holistic approach to restorative practices often have a tiered system that looks something like this:
Tier One: Community-building activities like morning meetings, small-group advisories, and teachers and students working collaboratively to create classroom rules and jobs. These activities involve all staff and students at the school, and often families. For example, last year at Harvest Collegiate while instruction was virtual, the school coordinated weekly mental health circles co-led by students and staff members.
Tier Two: Smaller groups convene in response to a specific problem or conflict. The group includes the harmed student, the person causing the harm, and a group of their peers and/or adults. They’ll talk about what happened and what can be done to repair the harm. The student who was harmed must feel no pressure to participate, but often elects to do so.
Tier Three: Practices aimed at reintegrating students who’ve been out of school due to suspension, expulsion, incarceration or truancy.
It takes real time, effort and intention to do this with fidelity. School staff members need a strong, shared definition of restorative practices: what they are, why they’re important, and how to implement them. Often, one or more staff members are designated as restorative justice coordinators and receive special training for that role; all staff members need time, training and support to implement “Tier One” practices like those described above.
Derek Hinckley, a eighth-grade teacher in Chicago, taught for ten years but still didn’t feel like he had a good working knowledge of restorative practices, despite working in a school that espoused the approach.
“I never received any formal training on what restorative practices look like and how to do them well,” Hinckley said. “I have my understanding of how to use restorative practices in my classroom, but that’s not necessarily what everybody else means.”
Shifting a school to a restorative model is hard work for leaders, too. Dr. Ben Williams, the founding principal of Ron Brown Collegiate Preparatory High School in Washington, DC, talked to me in 2018 about the difficulty of launching the District’s first all-male public high school with a restorative justice culture. “There’s nobody out there trying to do what I’m doing,” he told me. “It’s lonely work.” Even though Williams recruited staff with the understanding that they’d need to buy into the school’s restorative approach, and even though parents actively opted in to send their sons to the new school, he noted that many families and staff members still expected, and even pushed for, exclusionary discipline measures.
Allan Benton, a school principal in California, has been using restorative practices for nearly a decade. He cautions that it’s all too tempting for school and district administrators to distort restorative justice as a “quick fix”solution to unfavorable rates of suspension and expulsion.
“We saw schools quickly turn [toward restorative justice],” Benton said. “Suspensions went to zero, but you had a horrible school climate, and kids were afraid because [their peers] were doing really bad things that weren’t being properly dealt with. Just getting suspensions to disappear isn’t helping, nor is it actually restorative justice.”
With time and effort, however, restorative practices yield good dividends. At Harvest, 98% of students report that their teachers treat them with respect. 97% say they feel safe in the hallways, bathrooms, locker rooms, and cafeteria. And 93% of families say that school staff work hard to build trusting relationships with families like them.
Perfect? No—but I like those odds. I’m curious to learn more and do more in this area, and I hope you are, too.