The Problem with Punishment: Restorative Justice and Equity in School Discipline


On April 12, 2018, at John Witherspoon Middle School, Dr. Anne Gregory of Rutgers University shared her research on restorative justice.  Restorative justice is an alternative method of treating students who are perceived to be defiant, disrespectful, and insubordinate. Instead of punishment in the form of suspension, restorative justice focuses on social and emotional learning as an attempt to improve and correct student behavior.  Rather than “exiling” a student through suspension, restorative justice helps students understand their thoughts and behavior, the harm it may cost others, and the healing that’s necessary to remain in school and to learn. The students confront their mistakes, are held accountable and are more likely to remain in school to graduate.

Dr. Gregory shared data showing that students with repeated suspensions are 20% less likely to graduate from high school or go to college and 3 times more likely to get in trouble with the police. Traditional disciplinary methods involving suspension and other punitive measures tend to support the “school to prison pipeline.”

The two groups most at risk for repeated school suspension are Black males and students with disabilities, both male and female.  In one study, teachers were asked to observe a video of a preschool class and determine which children were more likely become troublemakers.  The teachers wore glasses with eye-tracking software, allowing researchers to track eye movements.  The study showed that the observers tracked Black children more than White children, even though no disruptive behavior was demonstrated by any of the children. The experiment revealed implicit racial bias on the part of the teacher/observers.

There is evidence that restorative justice programs are helping students stay in school and become more active and engaged learners.  Developing social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision-making, self-awareness (including implicit bias), and self-management (regulating emotions) for both staff and students are keys to the success of restorative justice.

Interventions involve Community Building Circles, where students and staff share vulnerabilities and have their voice heard. More intensive interventions involve restorative dialogue and re-entry circles. The goals are similar, to build trust and community, be supported emotionally and socially, make informed decisions, stay in the school system, and become better students.

Like all new initiatives, restorative justice programs have their problems. However, having committed leadership, staff training and prioritizing relationships over rules, and self-management over suspension are critical to success.

Reported by Eileen Sinett

3 Comments on “The Problem with Punishment: Restorative Justice and Equity in School Discipline

  1. Last night Superintendent Cochrane started the program sharing that in his four years as superintendent that there have been 35 suspensions, which accounts for 1% of the 4,000 population of children attending school in Princeton. The problem continues to be that this analogy is correct on the surface but is also skewed because African American/Black and Hispanic children in Princeton remain the targets. In Cochrane’s brief recap he shared that the school was involved in changes such as creating community circles for students and teachers to talk freely. The first practice community circle convened yesterday and the official circle will come together today with plans to implement the process int he 2018/19 school year.

    Dr. Gregory provided a lot of statistical data that emphasized how disproportionately how African American/Black males are treated differently compared to White boys. However, research-based evidence also concluded that African American/Black girls receive suspensions at a higher rate than White boys as well. The restorative justice strategic model consists of a three-tier process: Tier 1: Community Building (Prevention/Relate), Tier 2. Restorative Processes (Intervention/Repair), and Tier 3 Supported Re-Entry (Individuals/Re-Integrate).

    Two youtube clips were shared: Tier 1: Community Building Restorative Justice in Oakland Schools Restorative Justice in Oakland Schools – Community Building Circle – YouTube: Tier One.
    and Tier 3: Supported Re-Entry Restorative Welcome and Reentry Circle – YouTube

    Both youtube clips were important; however, I appreciated the first one more than second in many ways. The first highlighted an African American/Black young lady. The second video reinforced the public image that already perceives African American/Black males as social problem makers. However, the community exercise on support illustrated in the Re-Entry Tier 3 video is something that I personally know all too well because I recognize how racism divides and distracts Black peoples lives to the degree that support is often the very emotional connection that is lacking in our lives. Our families are so focused trying to survive in white supremacy, against racism in housing, job opportunities, education, and healthcare that we rarely have the time to see each other in ways that count.

    So, there are some aspects of this process that are helpful in nurturing African American/Black children in school; however, this is the byproduct of integration the continuous dismantling of our communities, which is rarely expressed as the origin to African American behavior and attitudes.

  2. I am encouraged that the process of implementing the “community circles” has begun. I liked what Superintendant Cochrane said about how, when we teach math, we expect students to make the mistakes, and we use those mistakes as teaching tools. And that we expect students to make behavioral mistakes as well.

    • I support your statement at face value; however, the reality beneath the need to have restorative justice processes in the first place clearly indicates behavior and attitude inequities toward nonwhite students. If accepting mistakes were foundational for all students then life would be different for African Americans and Hispanics. What this concept reinforces is the truth that 400-year’s later after every program from reconstruction to include restorative justice perceive African Americans as the problem and not the white supremacy system we have been force to adapt to.

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