This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.
Imagine going into a meeting in which your boss starts by immediately listing everything you’re doing wrong—and to top it off, your family is there to witness this scolding. It doesn’t sound like an engaging meeting, does it?
Yet this is exactly what happens all too often when students are suspended, expelled, or otherwise disciplined harshly. Often times, these practices contribute to longer lasting breakdowns of relationships. Furthermore, it is usually students of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, and other marginalized groups who are impacted the most, causing them not to drop out of school, but to be pushed out.
Fortunately, a growing focus on the practice of restorative justice gives us a chance to change that. Rooted in indigenous culture, restorative practices tie together the process of justice with one of healing, and they allow the whole community to work together and hold one another accountable.
Harsh discipline practices focus on assigning guilt, but restorative justice works to identify why something happened and what the student and the community needs in order to move forward. Changing to a strength-based structure allows young people to be viewed as the holistic individuals they are, and it builds a better foundation to start conversations around relationship-building.
It also helps everyone address concerns in a safe and productive environment. These concerns can range from academics, attendance, behavior, safety of the student, youth or family engagement or anything else that participants feel is getting in the way of the student’s success. With a neutral facilitator present, everyone is on an equal playing field and is able to share their perspective without the worry of being silenced or dismissed.
Since restorative practices involve the community as a whole, everyone has the chance to speak and be heard, and everyone has a role in creating a plan on how to move forward. Unlike punitive measures of discipline, as mentioned previously, everyone is held accountable without shame, and the conversation does not end there.
Instead, participants continue to remain in contact and celebrate the student’s progress with each accomplishment in and outside of the Plan. If an issue should come up, the group reconvenes to help problem-solve in order to support the student. By coming together, all participants, especially the student, are able to identify a clear support system, and the dialogue reshapes what the school space could look like for students and their families.
These conferences are a way that the Youth: Education, Advocacy, and Restorative Services (Y:EARS) team at the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis is supporting young people in their education and pushing back against harsh, punitive discipline policies. In a formal evaluation of the process, carried out by the University of Minnesota Prevention Research Center, 91 percent of the students would recommend this program to a friend, and school staff overall saw a decrease in suspensions for those students. What this data echoes is that restorative practices have a holistic approach that consistently meets the needs of all participants.
Restorative practices range from structured conferences to informal conversations between a teacher and a student. As a young person in a recent report Disciplined and Disconnected from the Center for Promise put it: "school discipline is unfair because you get detention for like, simple things they could handle by talking...Just talk to me about it."
Restorative justice practices redefine how we talk about intervention and discipline, allowing students to do what they were meant to: learn.
Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative
The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.
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