As School Contracts with Police are Called into Question, Consider Restorative Justice

We are in a time of immense change in our country and one thing that is being reconsidered is the role of police and punitive sanctions more broadly in schools. Research has shown that the presence of police and punitive sanctions in schools often drives students —particularly minority and poor students—out of school, resulting in a “school-to-prison” pipeline (Losen 2015).

Restorative justice is a non-punitive and relationship-based approach to responding to misbehavior and harm that encourages accountability and the reparation of relationships. It also works proactively to generate a positive school climate where students feel safe, respected, and heard. This translates into a myriad of positive outcomes for students and teachers alike.

A 2020 study summarizing the most recent two decades of quantitative studies regarding the effectiveness of restorative justice in schools found that restorative justice implementation has the following impacts (Darling-Hammond et al 2020).

  • A decrease in harmful behaviors (i.e. violence).
  • A decrease in exclusionary discipline (i.e. suspensions and expulsions). Exclusionary discipline is associated with a large range of negative outcomes for students including dropping out of school and being incarcerated, so a decrease in exclusionary discipline results in other improved outcomes for students.
  • A decrease in suspensions of Black, Latinx, low-income, and special needs students.
  • A lower rate of recidivism.
  • A reduction in the racial discipline gap.
  • Increased attendance.
  • Increased graduation rates.
  • Improved school climate.
  • Increased social-emotional growth and position development of students.
  • Higher levels of school connectedness and positive peer relations.
  • Increase in students’ feelings of safety.

I strongly urge school districts around the country to consider implementing a comprehensive restorative justice program to ensure school safety and improve students’ experiences of school climate and feelings of belonging.


Darling-Hammond, S., Fronius, T. A., Sutherland, H., Guckenburg, S., Petrosino, A., & Hurley, N. (2020). “Effectiveness of Restorative Justice in US K-12 Schools: A Review of Quantitative Research.” Contemporary School Psychology.

Losen, D. (Ed.). (2015). Closing the school discipline gap: equitable remedies for excessive exclusion. Teachers College Press.

Learning to Work “With” (The Social Discipline Window)


“Human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.”

– Ted Wachtel

The Social Discipline Window describes four basic approaches to addressing behavior that needs to be changed. Restorative practitioners use this tool to gauge the best response to a specific incident or ongoing issue. The four strategies are represented as different combinations of high or low control and high or low support. The word “control” never seems like quite the right fit to me, so I instead use “expectations of behavior” or “accountability.” The restorative domain combines high expectations of behavior and high support and is characterized by doing things with people, rather than to them or for them. A restorative approach allows us to address the problematic behavior, while also practicing empathy and maintaining a strong relationship.

Take, for example, a student who is repeatedly disruptive in class, speaking over the teacher and making loud comments and jokes.

The Neglectful strategy is to not do anything, to hope that the student will just eventually stop.

The Punitive strategy is punishment, doing something to the person who is misbehaving. The teacher might give the student detention or remove privileges like being able to come on a field trip. The strategy holds the student to a high expectation of behavior, but has very little support. This strategy may result in animosity between the teacher and student, and will not address the core issues or needs contributing to the problematic behavior.

The Permissive strategy is when we do things for someone. We accept their excuses or make excuses for them. The teacher might tell herself that the student is just trying to be liked by the other students because he has been having trouble making friends, or that his unrestrained enthusiasm is a sign that he is enjoying the class. A possible outcome is that other students, seeing that a high expectation of behavior is not upheld, will similarly begin to speak out of turn, and the teacher will slowly lose the respect of the class and the ability to facilitate an effective learning space.

The Restorative strategy is when we work with the person to resolve the issue. The teacher would speak with the disruptive student one-on-one, explain the impacts his disruptive behavior, and respectfully ask the student about his experience and what is going on. This keeps communication open and allows the teacher to find out what needs are contributing to the student’s misbehavior. Is the student having trouble making friends? Are there troubles at home that are impacting the student’s behavior at school? Are there other more productive ways that the student would like to be an outgoing leader in the classroom? Does the student need additional material to challenge him and keep him on task? The teacher and student would work together to understand what are the barriers to meeting the behavior expectations and how can those barriers be addressed.

What strikes me about the restorative strategy for addressing behavior issues is the humility it requires on the part of the teacher, facilitator, parent or other person of authority. Rather than thinking that we know best and approaching the problem with an already formed answer (as is the case in both the punitive and the permissive strategies), the restorative strategy approaches the issue by asking questions, with a humble and compassionate desire to better understand. It is the only strategy that allows us to actually get to the core of the issue.

There are a few strategies you can use to address conflicts and issues in your own life restoratively.

  1. Ask questions! Don’t assume that you know why a person is doing something, what their needs are, or the best strategy for making things right. Remember to make questions open-ended (so they can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”) and to use a tone of respect and non-judgment.
  2. In approaching an issue, follow the framework of the three central restorative questions.
    1. What happened?
    2. Who was affected and how?
    3. What is needed to repair the harms and make things right?
  1. Commit some time to self-reflection and identify which strategy in the Social Discipline Window is your default response. Are you prone to avoiding conflict and doing nothing, to jumping straight to punishment, or to making or accepting excuses for poor behavior? Knowing this about yourself will help you to know which direction you need to push yourself. Do you need to remind yourself to hold high expectations of behavior with the people in your life or do you need to remember to take a step back and show support?

In each of the communities and interactions that make up our lives, the Social Discipline Window offers us a tool for thinking about how to approach issues and conflicts more restoratively.