Restorative Justice: A mindset not a quick fix

by David McGuire

We all know that there is an equity problem in schools, and right now the spotlight is on discipline. The education sector is abuzz about the school-to-prison pipeline and the disproportionate suspension rates of black boys compared to other students.

To address these concerns, schools are turning to an alternative approach that sounds “gentler” than punishment but is often misunderstood. This approach has seen some success in helping juvenile offenders repay their debt to society and hopefully deter future juvenile misdeeds.

Restorative justice takes its roots from indigenous spiritual beliefs. The Navajo system approach believes that the group shares responsibility for the behavior of all. For educators it translates to, it takes a village to raise a child. The same goes for discipline. How do we expect students, who range in age from 12 to 18, to learn from and correct their own behaviors?

Restorative justice works as a mindset—not a discipline practice. 

Restorative justice helps to empower students to resolve conflicts on their own and in small groups. Restorative justice brings together students, teachers, administrators, and parents who have conflicts in peer mediation—small group spaces where they can air their concerns with one another. When done correctly and effectively, restorative justice changes the mindset behind the behavior fueling the conflict.

I was fortunate enough to be trained on restorative justice last school year in Chicago for an entire week. I was trained on the art of circling, a prominent practice among those who use restorative justice to improve the mindset of students prone to get in trouble. In addition to the circle training I was able to visit a local school on the South Side called Longwood that uses these practices to inform the school’s discipline culture and instructional culture.

After returning from the training, the discipline team at our Indianapolis school was tasked with implementing this new initiative, to help improve our school and reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions. It was an uphill battle because initially teachers were not on board. They just saw this as a way not to suspend kids and to excuse the behavior of students who were chronic classrooms disruptors.

The change did not come until there was a mentality change —until we as a discipline team stopped looking at restorative justice as a touchy-feely intervention, but instead started seeing it as a mindset that could address the underlying causes of students misbehavior. Changing a mindset takes time; we can’t expect a turnaround overnight.

At my former school, this new approach, led by the high school dean, resulted in major improvements with discipline and culture, but again, it took time to mature.

Over the years, with the increased awareness around the disproportionate discipline of black students, many schools have turned to restorative initiatives for help. Some of these schools adopted this as a superficial change, and many initiatives quickly faded away.

As a teacher I have embraced this restorative justice mindset. Even though my school and district have not formally adopted this program to reduce suspension and expulsions, I still use this practice in my classroom. We do circles once a week. It is an opportunity to have an open dialogue and let my students know the importance of the circle.

In the circle everyone is on the same level. The circle is sacred because what is said in the circle stays in the circle. The circle in my class has solved numerous conflicts and has even created some friendships among students who were not initially friends.

I know this might be hard for other teachers to believe, but it allows me to redirect punishment into quiet reflection. I just have them open a book on mentoring and reflect on a chapter that deals with the issue they are having. This works better than just writing them up and sending them to the principal’s office every time they make a mistake.

As this practice expands into a greater number of Indianapolis schools, I hope educators learn to embrace the underlying mindset and not just see it as a quick fix to improve their discipline statistics.