Early research seemed promising. Developers of “restorative justice” programs described how “talking it out” yielded benefits, such as a reduction in bullying and fighting, lower suspension rates and fewer missed days of school. Sometimes, early adopters even claimed that student achievement improved. But the studies tended to be small, and they tracked only what happened to students who participated in the program without comparing them to similar students who didn’t participate. No studies could prove that the restorative justice programs were causing any of the positive changes that the advocates had noticed.
By late 2016 even proponents openly worried that schools had moved too quickly. Samuel Song, co-director the National Network of Restorative School Researchers and an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, penned a damning article entitled, “The Cart Before the Horse,” in which he described the “void” in the research literature and a lack of understanding of the basics, such as what the day-to-day role of school psychologists should be.
At last, more sophisticated research has been commissioned, and the results are starting to trickle in. For proponents of restorative justice, the first two studies are not especially promising with both failing to show clear benefits for these non-punitive approaches to student discipline. Academic achievement fell for some students who were exposed to restorative justice compared to students at schools who were disciplined as usual. Implementation problems were common.
In surveys, teachers at the schools that tried restorative justice said that their school climate improved. But students reported that teachers struggled more to manage classroom behavior. I wondered if disruptive behavior in the classroom might have detracted from learning time, or perhaps even worthwhile and productive restorative justice conversations ate away at precious instructional minutes. Either way, it could potentially explain why some kids’ performance suffered.
One bright side for restorative justice was that the more that Maine students reported that they personally experienced elements of restorative justice, such as discussing problems in circles, the more that student felt connected to his or her peers and the less cyber-bullying he or she experienced. This is probably obvious, but there seems to be some benefit from facilitating discussions between students at school and not rushing to punish every infraction.
To read more of Jill Barshay's article, please click here.