The Powerful Potential of Restorative Justice in Education

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Reviewed by Brian Xu


More than ever before, punitive disciplinary practices in educational settings are coming under increasingly fierce scrutiny. Practices like suspension and expulsion have disproportionately affected  students from marginalized and minoritized backgrounds, particularly those in poor and under-resourced communities. Not only have these types of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies failed to improve students’ academic achievement, but they have also served to widen racial disparities between white students and students of color within the classroom.

As a result of a greater recognition of the inefficacy and harm of traditional disciplinary policies, restorative justice practices (RJP) have emerged as a viable alternative to keep students in school while decreasing racial inequities. In educational contexts, restorative justice focuses on establishing and upholding an atmosphere that prioritizes values and relies on strong relationships as the cornerstone of a restorative culture. Though RJP have demonstrated significant promise as a form of justice in schools, research on both their impact and implementation has been limited. This paper thus aims to evaluate the effectiveness of restorative justice in schools and examine existing barriers to carrying out RJP.

Dr. Mara Schiff is an Associate Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University where she specializes in restorative philosophy and practice in criminal-legal, juvenile, and educational areas. She is also a Board Member for the National Association for Community and Restorative Justice and President of PeaceWorks Consulting, Inc.

Methods and Findings

The author draws upon a variety of existing works on the effects of RJP within individual schools and specific districts. Acknowledging that published peer-reviewed research about RJP is still lacking in academic circles, she leverages data that generally comes from book chapters, non-peer-reviewed articles, and implementation reports, Dr. Schiff also utilizes critical race theory (CRT) as an analytic framework for understanding how institutions function in order to assess the obstacles preventing widespread adoption of RJP.

A variety of restorative justice practices in both domestic and global communities were found to be quite effective. Some success stories identified in the study include:

  • Cole Middle School in Oakland, CA experienced a significant 87% decrease in suspensions and reported no expulsions following the adoption of a whole-school restorative justice approach.
  • Restorative practices in 17 schools in Denver, CO led to a 68% decrease in police tickets overall, a 40% decrease in out-of-school suspensions, and an 82% decrease in expulsions.
  • Through restorative circles, conferences, peer mediation, and other restorative methods, the Minnesota Department of Education achieved a reduction in behavioral referrals and suspensions, ranging from 45 to 65 percent,  as well as an increase in academic achievement in 2 schools.
  • After introducing several restorative practices, school exclusions were notably reduced in 14 out of 18 public schools in Scotland.

Despite growing evidence of the positive implications of RJP, there still exist substantial impediments to its mainstream adoption. The dominant values that characterize most educational disciplinary policies are retributive in nature—emphasizing punishment, isolation, deprivation, and the proportionate infliction of harm. These values are at odds with the fundamental principles of restorative justice: inclusion, respect, fairness, tolerance, and acceptance. More tangibly, factors including the complexity of school bureaucracies, a lack of RJP training for teachers, and insufficient resources for the long-term implementation of a restorative culture,  make it extremely difficult for RJP to gain rapid traction in entrenched educational structures.


The growing awareness of unacceptable levels of racial inequality and inequity has led to an increased use of restorative responses to address harm in schools and in other settings around the world. Nevertheless, addressing the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ requires more than just a single disciplinary or educational tactic. It is crucial to consider how institutional bias and structural racism can hinder the acceptance and execution of restorative strategies. While it is necessary to have empirical support for the use of RJP in schools, restorative justice as a movement must also confront the systemic injustices that normalize social, political, and racial inequality.

Ultimately, there is a high risk that RJP in schools may inadvertently reinforce the institutional racial bias that contributes to the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’ To prevent such an outcome, restorative justice must go beyond by confronting the root causes of institutional bias and the structures that uphold violence as a legitimate response to harm. Policies that underscore respect, inclusiveness, and compassion will do much more in protecting students.


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