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

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 The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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AP Might Breathe Life into Dying Art of Research Papers

Published by — With research papers out of favor, the College Board could revive the practice — just as Will Fitzhugh has been championing for decades.

No technique quite so effectively teaches students to think as the good old-fashioned essay.  Essays are their own assessments, showing whether kids can reason their way through evidence to a compelling conclusion.  When students pick a thesis, research the topic, and build a good argument, THAT’S thinking.

But sadly, essays are on their way to extinction.

For decades, Will Fitzhugh has been editing and publishing high-school history papers in his Concord Review.  In 2002 he worked with researchers to survey high-school history teachers about their habits of assigning the once-ubiquitous term paper.  Confirming his fears, the study revealed that while 95 percent of the sampled teachers agree such papers were important, 62 percent never assign as much as a 12-page paper.  Fully 27 percent never assign even an 8-pager.

You would think such papers were still the core of humanities instruction.  But they are not.  At our peril.

Perhaps for that reason, next fall the College Board will pilot two new research-writing Advanced Placement (AP) courses in 15 – 18 high schools.  Small teams of students will research and collaborate on a 4,500 to 5,000-word paper.  Mmmm.

Back in antiquity, we wrote papers for high school, college and grad school by ourselves.  In fact, as students, we generally felt awash in paper-writing requirements, with 10-page English and history papers due at the end of each semester, and 3-5-pagers at the mid-term.

Essays are time-consuming for both student and teacher.  But, how else do you learn to write, reason and think through complex issues?  Increasingly, professors bellow about kids arriving at college with abysmal writing skills.

As an arrogant high-schooler, I took the position that correct spelling was a trivial and absurd requirement that shouldn’t mar my grades.  But a 10th-grade English teacher took me on, declaring that until I mastered the mechanics of writing, he would grade me on nothing else.  During our first embattled semester together, he threatened either to give me the terrible grade I so richly deserved, or to let my semester’s grade rest on a letter-perfect,10-page research essay on why spelling shouldn’t matter.

As a lazy but “good” student, flunking any subject would have been a first, and caused an ugly show-down with my parents.  So, I researched what others had to say about the arbitrariness of English spelling conventions.  Bernard Shaw was a treasure trove, and I loved his elegantly snarky prose.  I conscripted a history teacher to help me hone my evidence so it led to a well-founded, if snotty conclusion.

I found plenty of useful quotes and got the “A+” the paper deserved.  But my teacher remained unconvinced.

More importantly, I’d been tricked into a giving myself a rather deep training in the importance of communicating clearly, without illiteracies.  I never apologized or admitted I was wrong, but I had been forced to study and think the subject through.  What a concept.

Will Fitzhugh has been a lone, frustrated, and sometimes shrill voice advocating for the return of the humble essay.  In editorials and on his blog, he rails about the infuriating honors, prizes and scholarships given to students for science projects, sports ability, even cheerleading.  But the only honors available to varsity historians are the $1,000-awards Fitzhugh himself bestows.  Current winners and their work are on the Review’s homepage .

Fitzhugh’s solution to the pathetic decline of students’ writing skills is what he calls the Page Per Year Plan©.  Simple and doable, he describes it as follows:

Each first grader would be required to write a one-page paper on a subject other than herself or himself, with at least one source.

A page would be added each year to the required academic writing, such that, for example, fifth graders would have to write a five-page paper (five sources), ninth graders would have to write a nine-page research paper, with nine sources, and so on, until each and every senior could be asked to prepare a 12-page academic research paper (twelve sources), with endnotes and bibliography, on some historical topic, which the student could choose each year.

Surely such deliberate skill-building would reduce the now-massive need for college remediation in reading, writing, and I dare say, reasoning.

The point of education is not to pass tests, though they can be useful to see if students are getting anything out of their courses.  No, the point of education is to learn to think.  And essays are time-tested tools for training young minds to manage information, to find their way to useful conclusions, and make themselves understood.

In one of his curmudgeonly emails, Fitzhugh recently wrote, “Since 1987 The Concord Review has published nearly 1,000 exemplary serious research papers by high-school students from 46 states and 38 other countries.  We even did a special issue of AP History Essays for the College Board in 1995.  But it only took them 17 more years to consider a Brave New 3-year Pilot Program for the sort of Extended Essay that the International Baccalaureate has required for many many years.  Perhaps after those three years a few more AP students will have a chance to get ready for college term papers. Hallelujah! You Go! College Board!”

True, he’s crabby.  But dead on the money.

          Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and GoLocalWorcester.  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.  For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.



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