Talking RJ with Schools

  It is great when schools seek me out to help with Restorative Justice implementation and training.  It’s not always the case.  I try to get more involvement from my area schools, so I knock on doors, meet with new principals and try to make the case to bring in RJ.  I’ve got some reflections for those of you who might be trying to do the same thing.

Be careful in your approach – I used to start the discussion about how RJ reduces suspensions and expulsions.  That is one outcome of RJ in schools, but I found individuals dismissing me.  The formal mindset was still in place.  The few student that did get expelled “they deserved it”.  I was asking schools to redefine the entire school culture, for a few students, that caused a great deal of time and trouble.  Not the best approach.  Now I talk about student learning and achievement increasing.  The whole school approach outcomes.  Brenda Morrison’s book Restoring Safe School Communities is an excellent resource.

Rj language to school language – schools can dismiss the notion of victim, offender, community.  So much of the focus on negative behavior happens as a violation of the school rules.  Victims are often (not always) overlooked, and secondary victims, are really seldom identified.  I talk about the American Psychological Association’s study on school discipline:

APA Zero Tolerance, February 2001   Recommendation:

RESOLVED, that the American Bar Association supports the following principles concerning school discipline:


  1. schools should have strong policies against gun possession and be safe places for students to learn and develop;

2.  in cases involving alleged student misbehavior, school officials should exercise sound discretion that is consistent with principles of due process and considers the individual student and the particular circumstances of misconduct; and

3.  alternatives to expulsion or referral for prosecution should be developed that will improve student behavior and school climate without making schools dangerous; and


FURTHER RESOLVED, that the ABA opposes, in principle, “zero tolerance” policies that have a discriminatory effect, or mandate either expulsion or referral of students to juvenile or criminal court, without regard to the circumstances or nature of the offense or the student’s history.

The APA report states that Zero Tolerance does not work!  It recommends using other options and suggests Restorative Justice as one of those.  The three levels of intervention are suggested and finding ways for staff to reconnect alienated youth.

Give examples We were “lucky” in a odd an unfortunate sense.  One of our board members was also an assistant principal.  His house was egged and he and his wife agreed to participate in a Restorative Justice Conference.  It was early on the SCVRJP history that this happened, this board member had to leave our board, but in his role at the school he made several case referrals.  This was the start of our school involvement.  These cases gave me situations to share with other schools.

Now I can list off schools and districts that have worked in Restorative Justice.  I was also with Sally Wolf when she got the call that the Chicago School District decided to leave zero tolerance and move toward Restorative Justice.  I have emailed back and forth with staff in Denver, who were part of that districts move towards RJ.  These are not small school systems! 

I have to talk about MN leading the way, last I heard 32% of their schools were using RJ!  They’ve trained 20,000 people.  Check out Restorative Measures, a pdf developed in ’97 before the power of Circles in Schools was utilized.  Nancy Riestenberg and the MN Dept of Education have some great articles and resources for schools.  Here is one of Nancy’s powerpoints riestenber_restorative-measures.

My friends at the Central Michigan Restorative Justice Initiative have a great video about RJ in schools.  You can read there annual report for data, and I can’t wait to meet them in Toronto at the IIRP International RJ Conference.

If your school is interested in implementing RJ, give me a call and we can talk about steps to take in moving ahead.


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