Positive Effects of Restorative Justice in Southeastern Michigan Schools

POST BY Carl Bookstein Volunteer at ACLU of Michigan

Imagine a better road where students, instead of getting suspended or expelled from school as disciplinary actions, are given a chance to heal. Such is the path of "restorative justice."

The idea behind restorative justice (or restorative practices) is to keep students in school while they are engaged in disciplinary actions that help restore broken down relationships.

Why is restorative justice better suited as a disciplinary action? The practice is the very essence of what learning in the education system is all about, and we as a society need to move beyond the antiquated "zero tolerance" system in schools.

Restorative justice in school is typically accomplished through the use of an encounter circle where all parties involved in the incident are given an equal voice. The key to encounter circles, modeled after an age-old practice of indigenous societies, is to listen.

The encounter circle teaches the instigator of the incident that his or her actions impact others. He or she will typically become contrite, an apology follows, and this sets the stage for a collaborative plan, which may include restitution and community service. Students take ownership of their actions and receive value in return.

A movement toward restorative justice as an alternate to punitive discipline is happening in Detroit, Lansing and nationwide. In Lansing, Ms. Greta Trice is the director of Resolution Services Center of Central Michigan—a nonprofit organization that provides facilitators in schools to aid in restorative circles and conferences.

“Restorative justice is highly effective in reducing suspensions," says Trice. "Suspension is just punitive and not going to prevent the problem from reoccurring.”

A recent case Trice shared involved two high school girls fighting over a boy: Both were suspended. Trash talk on Facebook ensued. Both believed the other wanted to fight.

The issue was not resolved until a restorative justice session led to dialogue and healing, which ultimately led to resolution. Both students were allowed to come back to school early. “Restorative justice,” says Trice, “Allows for a thorough conversation between the parties.”

While doing away with the concept of "zero tolerance," restorative justice also helps to battle the school-to-prison pipeline in communities of color. This pipeline traps kids in a vicious cycle that leads from one form of punitive discipline to the next. Soon they are up against the criminal justice system.

Instead of criminalizing students, we need to look at them as human beings of worth and value that deserve our tolerance in these early learning stages. Restorative justice will give kids the tools to heal, to learn and to make all parties involved—the students, the teachers, the school and the community—whole.

"Suspension is just punitive and not going to prevent the problem from reoccurring.”