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At Last! A Review of Research on Restorative Justice In Schools

By March 17, 2016April 14th, 2022No Comments

Published by — Early studies of RJ programs in the US show their impact in reducing suspensions and harmful behavior.


Local Restorative Practices/Restorative Justice (RP/RJ) initiatives have been starving for research on America’s efforts to implement programs.  The large body of evidence showing the ineffectiveness of punishment doesn’t seem to make an adequately compelling argument for supporting Restoration.  And international research, while positive, has limited utility because each country’s educational system is somewhat different from each other’s, making comparisons hard.

So I’m relieved that the Robert Wood Johnston Foundation published a review of the existing literature this past February.  Restorative Justice in Schools: A Research Review concludes that overall, Restorative Justice (RJ) has been showing promising results.  “Teachers who implemented RJ frequently had better relationships with their students. The students felt respected by their teachers, and teachers generally issued fewer referrals.”  Those of us in the field have known this for some time.  Now we can say so with some clout, although the authors concede that this research is still “in its infancy.”

What is Restorative Justice in Schools?

There is no standardized definition of RJ, so the heavily-footnoted report turns to The National Centre for Restorative Approaches in Youth Settings.  They define it as “an innovative approach to offending and inappropriate behavior which puts repairing harm done to relationships and people over and above the need for assigning blame and dispensing punishment. A restorative approach in a school shifts the emphasis from managing behavior to focusing on the building, nurturing and repairing of relationships.”

In other words, RJ gets away from a myopic focus on guilt or innocence and works on reknitting relationships and community.

A summary of the obstacles to implementing RJ in schools:

The report states, “RJ requires staff time and buy-in, training, and resources that traditional sanctions such as suspension do not impose on the school. With RJ, teachers are often required to perform duties traditionally outside of their job description, such as attending RJ trainings, conducting circles during instruction time, and spending more time one-on-one talking with students. Some educators and other stakeholders are resistant to RJ because it is sometimes perceived as being “too soft” on student offenses. Finally, while RJ programs will certainly vary by the size of the school and scope of the program, some researchers suggest that a shift in attitudes toward punishment may take one to three years, and the deep shift to a restorative-oriented school climate might take up to three to five years.”

The critical issue of racial disparities

Punitive sanctions have the toxic effect of driving students — particularly minority and poor students — out of school altogether.  Furthermore, research shows significant disparities in exclusionary punishment for racial minorities and students with disabilities. “For example, minority students are suspended three times more than White students… A study from one Texas district that found African American students were 26.2% more likely to receive out-of-school suspension for their first offense than White students. Students who are suspended, all things being equal, are more at risk for poor attendance, inability to progress to the next grade, failure to graduate, and subsequent involvement in the juvenile and adult justice systems.”

The disparities might be the result of the growing use of law-enforcement methods “(e.g., armed police or security forces patrolling the grounds, metal detectors, security cameras, locker searches)… These procedures have led to students perceiving that their schools are like prisons and that they are viewed as criminals committing crimes, especially as they are designated as ‘suspects’ and ‘under investigation.’”

A few images of RP/RJ’s impact

RP/RJ has been most successful where the programs have stood the test of time, grown and become sustainable — such as some in California, Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.  But RJ programs or models can be successful whether implemented in public, private, or alternative schools, in urban or suburban environments, in one school or every school in a district.

“All the empirical studies we reviewed report a decrease in exclusionary discipline and harmful behavior (e.g., violence) after implementing some type of RJ program.

For example, (one researcher) reports an 84% drop in out-of-school suspensions among sixth graders in one Texas school during the first year RJ was introduced, and a 19% drop in all suspensions… Denver schools that implemented restorative circles and conferencing report a 44% reduction in out-of-school suspensions. They also report an overall decrease in expulsions across the three-year post-implementation period.  In Oakland, Cole Middle School experienced an 87% drop in suspensions across the first two years of implementation compared to the prior three years; expulsions were eliminated entirely after RJ was put in place. More recent figures from Oakland suggest continued success, with a 74% drop in suspensions and a 77% decrease in referrals for violence during a two-year follow up.”

Not too shabby.  The report notes that other large-scale research is taking place now and that more hard data will be available within the foreseeable future.  In the meantime, for those looking for an “evidence-base,” the gold standard for getting grants and credibility, this worthy report is a welcome, if early, addition.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUBFor more, see or contact her at [email protected]. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.