By: Amber Joiner-Hill, MSSW
Associate Policy Analyst, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago

In Part One of this piece, I outlined some of the impacts that the criminalization of students has on youth outcomes—lower high school graduation rates, higher chances of getting arrested, and increased likelihood of entering the adult criminal justice system. Here I’d like to offer restorative justice as a different approach for improving student behavior in school.  


Research does not indicate that students who experience traditional disciplinary actions such as suspensions or expulsions are less likely to violate school policies in the future, or that the punitive actions create safety for the schools or communities. Instead, data implies that the use of punishment and criminalization makes students more likely to suffer academically and get involved in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems further down the roadi,ii. It is time for education administrators to reconsider the way that schools respond to negative behavior in the classroom.   

One alternative method is called restorative justice. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), restorative justice is a theory that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavioriii. The goal is to bring together those most affected by the criminal act in a non-adversarial process to encourage offender accountability, to meet the needs of the victims, and repair the harm that resulted from the crime. Restorative justice can be implemented in different ways—the most common of which include family group conferences, victim-impact panels, victim-offender mediation, circle sentencing, and community reparative boards. The amount of research completed on each of the implementations varies, but collectively it suggests that restorative justice reduces recidivism rates among youth as well as men in jail or prison, it reduces the victim’s post-traumatic stress symptoms, and it offers a stronger sense of justice for the victim and the offender than the traditional criminal justice system caniv

The description of restorative justice provided by OJJDP is typically meant to apply to criminal actions that occur in a community. When the same theory of repairing harm caused by criminal behavior is implemented in a school, it is sometimes referred to as restorative practice, and the terms can be used interchangeably. The focus remains on repairing harm done to relationships instead of assigning blame or seeking retribution. Both students and school staff can participate in the activity. The practices in school typically include the following elements:  

In the city of Chicago, for example, the Umoja Corporation partners with at least 15 Chicago schools to facilitate restorative practices. The schools that implemented the practices have decreased their suspension rates by an average of 42%, which means that students spend more time in the classroom, giving them less time to engage in criminal behavior outside of the school, and therefore making them more likely to stay in school and graduate with a diplomavii. In addition to quantitative school outcomes such as graduation rates and violations of school policies, the use of restorative practices can positively affect a student’s problem-solving and conflict resolution skills and overall experience in school as it relates to bullying and relationship-buildingviii,ix


The data from Chicago is promising, but further research should be conducted on the use of restorative practices in schools in order to develop a more robust pool of data. Only then can we access it’s efficacy, modify the approach as necessary, and then determine if and how restorative justice should be widely implemented across school districts. When more outcome data is available, then it can be compared against the outcomes of students who experienced suspensions and expulsions. Potential measurements include high school graduation rates, recidivism rates as they relate to school policy violations, suspension and expulsion rates among students of color, and emotional well-being of the students involved in the offense.  

Additional Resources 

Restorative Practices in Schools 

Basic Restorative Justice Trainings and Events: 

Minnesota Department of Education. (n.d.). Books and Manuals on Restorative Measures in Schools. Retrieved from 

Riley, E. (2017 March 17). Implementing Restorative Practices in the Classroom. Getting Smart. Retrieved from 

Schott Foundation. (2014, March). Restorative Practices: Fostering Healthy Relationships & Promoting Positive Discipline in Schools. A Guide for Educators. Retrieved from 

Disproportionality in School Punishment 

Parker, D. (2014, May 17). Segregation 2.0: American’s school-to-prison pipeline. Retrieved from 

Skiba, R. J., Chung, C-G, Trachok, M., Baker, T. L., Sheya, A., & Hughes, R. L. (2014). Parsing disciplinary disproportionality: Contributions of infraction, student, and school characteristics to out-of-school suspension and expulsion. American Educational Research Journal, 51, 640-670. doi: 10.3102/0002831214541670 

Skiba, R. J., Michael, R. S., Nardo, A. C., & Peterson, R. L. (2002). The color of discipline: Sources of racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment. The Urban Review, 35, 317-342. 

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