Student’s Racial Identity Influences Public Schools’ Use of Restorative Justice Discipline

Reviewed by Daniel Estupinan

Schools with a greater proportional enrollment of Black students are less likely to use restorative justice techniques when responding to student misbehavior. 


Many public schools rely on punitive models of student discipline, employing harsh, exclusionary punishments like detentions, suspensions, and expulsion in response to student misbehavior. Research has shown that students who receive these harsh punishments are at increased risk of future school delinquency and also more likely to eventually become involved in the criminal justice system, a phenomenon known as the “school to prison pipeline.” In contrast, restorative justice models treat misbehavior as a violation of an interpersonal or community relationship and therefore employ interventions like peer mediation, restitution, and community service to constructively repair that harm. Research has found these restorative justice practices are preferred by students and produce higher overall community satisfaction. 

Prior research has tested the racial threat hypothesis, or the theory that increased presence of black people in a particular space is associated with the use of more punitive policies, and found the racial composition of public schools is associated with the use of punitive disciplinary techniques. These earlier studies have not, however, assessed the impact of racial composition on a school’s propensity to use restorative practices, which the authors assess in this research. Ultimately, the authors find that greater proportional enrollment of Black students is negatively related to a school’s use of restorative justice disciplinary techniques. 

Allison Ann Payne is a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Villanova University. Kelly Welch is a Professor and Program Director in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Villanova University.

Methods and Findings

Payne and Welch used student, teacher, and principal survey responses from the National Study of Delinquency Prevention in Schools as this study’s primary data. The study included results from 294 public, non-alternative secondary schools, and excluded private and religious schools with a wider variety of disciplinary norms. 

Logistic regression analyses indicated the percent of Black students in each school, or its racial composition, was significantly negatively related to a school’s likelihood of using student conferences, peer mediation, restitution, community service, or an overall restorative justice model. Other factors like student body socioeconomic status, measured by percent of students on free or reduced lunch, or levels of delinquency and drug use were also significantly negatively predictive of a school’s likelihood to use restorative justice protocols until the student body’s racial composition was accounted for.

Contrastingly, schools with more present, visible, and engaged principles were more likely to respond to student misbehavior with restorative justice techniques.


While prior research has focused on the impact of racial composition on a public school’s propensity to use punitive disciplinary techniques, this study was the first to test the racial threat hypothesis on a public school’s use of restorative practices. The authors found significant evidence that greater proportional enrollment of Black students is negatively related to a public school’s use of restorative disciplinary practices. 

Whereas restorative approaches to school discipline enhance student outcomes and school climate, the punitive disciplinary techniques often used by public schools decrease student achievement and increase recidivism rates. Integrating a restorative justice philosophy in public schools, particularly those that are communally organized, offers education policymakers an opportunity to improve the experiences of all members of the school community. Strengthening students’ bonds to their school improves their academic interest and achievement, while the same communal model of education improves morale and satisfaction among teachers. 

The results of this study are applicable only to public schools, as private and religious schools were excluded for their variability in disciplinary practices. Female-headed households, urban residents, and low-income families were also underrepresented in the study, as rural participants were more likely to complete the surveys used by the authors. 

Future research may explore how the racial, ethnic, and gender identity of a principal impacts a school’s use of restorative justice techniques. It may also be beneficial for researchers to assess the role of bias and stereotypes among teachers and other school leaders in the use of restorative discipline practices.


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