Restorative Justice in Schools: a Qualitative Research Study

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Restorative justice (RJ) is the process of holding misbehaving individuals accountable for their transgressions, mediating conflicts between victims and offenders, arriving at collaborative solutions for resolving issues, and then reintegrating offenders into the community (Mayworm, Sharkey, Hunnicutt, & Schiedel, 2016). While this practice has its roots in the criminal justice system, it is also being implemented more and more frequently in school settings to address conflicts and behavioural issues amongst students (Mayworm et al., 2016). 

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RJ methods of mediation and conflict resolution contrast starkly with more traditional methods of discipline which put the emphasis on punishing offenders and bringing wrongdoers to justice (Wadhwa, 2010). These traditional methods of discipline, such as corporal punishment, public humiliation, and the use of dunce caps, became less societally acceptable in the 1960s and 1970s (Adams, 2000). Instead of using degrading and often physical methods of discipline, expulsions and suspensions became the most common means of punishing misbehaving students (Adams, 2000). 

As a result of this increase in the use of expulsions and suspensions to address students’ behavioural infractions, the suspension rate in the USA almost doubled from 1974 to 2000, reaching 3.4 million students in 2000 (Wald & Losen, 2003). This increase in suspension and expulsion rates coincided with an increase as well in the occurrence of the “school-to-prison pipeline”, the phenomenon in which the more times a student has been suspended from school, held back a grade level, or moved to alternative programs, the more likely they are to eventually get pushed out of school completely and eventually end up in prison (ibid.). In response to this dire situation, schools have started to implement RJ practices to offer students more restorative methods of redressing wrongdoings, repairing harm, interacting positively with others, and ultimately staying in school (Wadhwa, 2010). 

Positive outcomes have been noted in schools that have implemented RJ programs, specifically decreases in school expulsion and suspension rates, behavioral infractions and referrals, and student absences (Rideout, Roland, Salinitri, & Frey, 2010; Stinchcomb, Bazemore, & Riestenberg, 2006). In addition, Rideout et al. (2010) argue that RJ policies increase academic achievement and improve school culture, atmosphere, and sense of community. While there are numerous benefits to incorporating RJ practices in school settings, Mayworm et al. (2016) claim that doing so successfully is not always apparent and argue that further research on the implementation of RJ is needed.

More attention needs to be focused on developing strategies to overcome the numerous known barriers to successful implementation of RJ in school settings. These barriers include a sense that RJ is not a well-defined practice, insufficient preservice training on classroom management techniques for preservice teachers, the issue of a lack of time to cohesively implement RJ methods school-wide, a lack of support from school administrators, a lack of funding, tensions arising between deep-seated, systemically retributive mentalities and restorative ones, and a difficulty faced by staff members in accepting and adopting restorative ways of thinking and doing (Fields, 2003; Mayworm, 2016; Reimer, 2011).

These challenges can prevent RJ from being implemented in a way that students, teachers, administrators, and the community at large can reap maximal benefits from this practice. Without more attention to these issues and the development of solutions to RJ implementation barriers, restorative justice will remain in many cases just another well-intentioned “good idea” that lacks footing and ultimately fails to reach its maximum potential. 

The purpose of my research is to learn how a sample of educators is implementing restorative justice practices into their pedagogical practices in school settings despite the known barriers to this work. I am specifically curious to know how these educators have experienced these and other barriers to sustained implementation of restorative justice practices in schools as well as key factors and resources that have contributed to their capacity to overcome these challenges. I aim to provide readers with steps that can be taken and resources that may help improve implementation of RJ practices in schools in order to allow educators, students, administrators, and school communities alike to reap maximal benefits from this practice.

RJ practices have been developed and implemented in various countries with a focus on restorative conferencing—a structured method of repairing broken relationships after harm has been inflicted by bringing involved parties, including both offenders and victims, back together in order to collaboratively resolve conflicts, find restorative solutions, and repair relationships (Morrison, 2007). Pavelka (2013) explains that the core principles of RJ are repairing harm, reducing risk, and empowering the community, and involve adopting a set of principles rather than just one specific technique. 

She elaborates that the main RJ models that may help stakeholders achieve these outcomes are peer mediation, peer/accountability boards, conferencing, and restorative circles (ibid.). In utilizing any of these RJ methods, the ultimate goal is to restore breakdowns in relationships by asking questions such as: What happened? Who was harmed as a result and in what ways? Now what can be done to make things better? (O’Connell, 2004). Pavelka (2013) states that by utilizing these methods, educators and school administrators may collaboratively find solutions to disciplinary transgressions more easily than if they were to use more traditional methods of discipline.

Various benefits can be attained as a result of implementing RJ in schools including an increase in empathy and a sense of voice for students, an improved sense of community with teachers responding to students in a calmer fashion, as well as more positive and respectful relationships between teachers and students (Wong et al. (2011), Riestenberg (2012), Kehoe et al. (2018), McCluskey et al. (2008)). In addition, schools that have implemented RJ have noted a reduction in the number of school absences and suspensions as well as increases in academic success, making it clear that this practice should continue to be integrated into school settings (Rideout et al., 2010, Stinchcomb et al., 2006).

Yet, despite RJ’s numerous positive benefits, there are many barriers to successful implementation of RJ practices in schools that may stand in the way of RJ programs being as beneficial as possible (Mullet, 2014). These challenges include general confusion over the definition and implications of RJ, an increase in time commitment for teachers and administrators, tensions when transitioning from deeply-seated punitive measures to restorative ones, and a lack of follow-up support for teachers when implementing RJ (Song & Swearer, 2016; Mullet, 2014; Reimer, 2011; Mihalic, Irwin, Fagan, Ballard, & Elliott, 2004). Johnson et al. (2011) add that a lack of adequate professional development in the area of RJ also forms a significant hurdle to overcome in successfully implementing restorative justice initiatives. 

Kaveney and Drewery (2011) argue that time commitment, staff effort, as well as access to resources are the three main obstacles to overcome in order to successfully implement RJ in school settings. Johansen et al. (2011) elaborate that teachers often do not receive sufficient pre-service training in classroom management skills in general and that this holds true in terms of RJ strategies as well; training and onboarding programs are scarce, making successful implementation of such practices even more difficult. Mayworm et al. (2016) agree that sufficient training that would help educators implement RJ practices effectively is lacking, which they attribute to a lack of empirical evidence, research, and guidance on effective PD strategies. Without more information available on successful implementation of restorative justice programs in school settings, appropriate adoption and usage of RJ practices will continue to be pursued on a trial-and-error basis (ibid.).

Pavelka (2013) claims that another issue in implementing RJ programs successfully in schools is that many programs that claim to be restorative in nature do not actually result in “restorativeness”. In some cases, a victim or stakeholder may not actually be included in the RJ process or the wrongdoer might not really be held accountable for their actions, both of which lead to RJ practices not being as effective as they could be (ibid.). In these cases, we can see that RJ is not fully effective because it is not being implemented correctly (ibid.). Pavelka (2013) argues that consistent use of restorative justice practices will lead to more desirable outcomes and that implementing RJ successfully is not about implementing one specific RJ practice but is instead about adopting a set of principles at each step of the RJ process. 

While Pavelka (2016) alludes to the reality of RJ programs not being as beneficial as possible because of mediocre implementation, she only recommends the broad, prescriptive advice of adopting a set of principles rather than one set action to take when implementing RJ in schools. While I find Pavelka’s literature to be insightful, it is lacking in specificity in terms of which RJ principles should be relied upon, for example, to ensure proper application of RJ processes in school settings. In addition, Pavelka (2013) stresses the importance of building collaborations between staff members, teachers, 

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