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Centering Humanity and Community with Restorative Justice in Schools

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    Joe Truss

Joe Truss is committed to dismantling white supremacy culture in schools. He has been the Principal of Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, for 6 years. He also writes about leadership on his blog, and provides racial equity coaching.

When you talk about restorative justice, what do you mean?

Love. Fundamentally, we are talking about restoring community and humanity, when it is harmed. This requires that there be true humanity and connection to start. Restorative justice has its roots in Indigenous culture and became popular from the work of the Maori people in New Zealand. Many books have been written, and lots of folks claim to be all about restorative justice without honoring the roots. It is fitting that we honor Indigenous practices when thinking about RJ, because it allows us to see that our more typical ways of punishing students are both dehumanizing and closely tied to white supremacy culture. Restorative Justice is what antiracism looks like in the relationship, climate, and culture side of schools.

Who benefits from restorative justice in schools?

Everyone. All students, even white students, benefit from having a humanizing approach to restoring community and repairing harm. However, since students of color disproportionately are further oppressed through school discipline systems, students of color can disproportionately benefit from restorative justice.

It is about staying in the game. When students of color are pushed out and marginalized, they are denied access to a fair education and also internalize a racist message about their self worth and their abilities. By keeping students in the game, they have access to a key piece in their liberation, education.

Not to mention, that all other students benefit from seeing a humanizing approach to dealing with harm, conflict, and disagreement. Whether BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) or White people are causing harm, students see what community looks like, and in turn build skills of empathy, emotional regulation, and reflection. But let’s be clear. In this consistent climate of antiBlackness, fueled domestic terrorism, white supremacist groups, and racist policy, it will be Black students that benefit most. And there is nothing wrong about that.

For schools toggling between in-person, hybrid, and remote learning how can they start or continue implementing restorative justice?

To begin, we need community. That includes having rules and expectations that are co created, if not entirely created by students. This can be done virtually or in person. However, it is critical to understand that restorative justice and community is not just done on the climate and culture side of education. It happens in the pedagogy and curriculum as well. The tenets of white supremacy culture must be dismantled within the teaching and learning as well. Your inclusive rules don’t mean a damn thing, if your curriculum is eurocentric, your pedagogy is one dimension, and your assessment is inspired by eugenics. Start by putting students of color, and don’t be afraid to explicitly focus on Black students, at the center. Of everything. Create space for marginalized students to talk to each other, to give their input on the curriculum, and to take ownership of their learning. If we are talking about what to do when harm is caused, the same rules apply in the virtual space. Listen to students, to both sides, regardless of your bias and assumptions. Instead of asking students “What did you do?” ask “What happened?” Instead of jumping to kicking kids out of class or the Zoom room, talk to students. Talk to them like you love them. Even when they make a mistake. Acknowledge that we are all stressed, tired, worried, and frustrated. Our students are still kids. We are the adults who should know better. Let’s act like it y’all.

What does a commitment to restorative justice require from students? What does it require from teachers?

It requires empathy and patience. This is hard because during adolescence students are developing these skills and it’s a time when you are literally obsessed with yourself. RJ requires building new habits, especially when they have had a decade or more of punishment oriented systems. Younger students are great at it, but the older kids struggle more, as we do as adults. Additionally, young people need patience and multiple opportunities to attempt to restore the community.

For teachers, RJ requires us to unlearn our dehumanizing habits and stop powerhoarding. We need to check our privilege and power. Because we were schooled in this same system of white supremacy culture and patriarchy, we believe there is the only way; it’s a dog eat dog world right? Wrong. It can be a world where we love each other and build deeper communities. For adults, that requires skills of de-escalation, empathy, conflict resolution. Here are 40 questions to ask yourself before suspending a student. It also requires some serious mindset shifts, which might require reading antiracist books or being part of a racial affinity group.

Can you give an example of what restorative justice looks like in action?

True story: I am leaving my office at work headed to a classroom and I see a student fuming coming down the hallways, fist balled, smashing the lockers, cursing, and yelling. He’s seeing red. Instead of yelling back, threatening to call his parents, or reprimanding him, I just put my arm around his shoulder and walk with him. He curses me, threatens me, pushes me. I just hug him and say it’s going to be ok. I know something happened, I am sure he did something to add to a disposition file in the system. That isn’t important. What’s important now is that he is safe, he doesn’t do any more damage, and someone is there with him. We walk the halls, until he cools down. I make eye contact with a security guard who points to where the other student is located. I trust that they are already working through the pieces of the puzzle. What happened, how the other person feels, what they need. They are recording statements, calling home to make sure parents are aware. I know we are going to sit down at some point and talk together, and it might work the first time or it might fail, but we will try. We will find some resolution that might involve apologies, letters, handshakes, tears, a game of basketball, or folded arms. After 15 years in schools, I know all of these things, but for now, I am just walking the halls. Still with my arm around the shoulder of a 7th grade student working through being a teenager in a world not designed for his success. I can be there in the moment. I can listen. I can not take it personally. I can be patient.

Are there any pitfalls educators can avoid when implementing restorative justice in their school?

Faking the funk. Oftentimes we say we are ‘bout that life, until it gets real. Until it gets tough. Until it doesn’t work. Educators say they support RJ until they realize that it’s not the students that need to change but us. The pitfall is thinking that we just need to condition the students, without checking ourselves and committing to change. If we are not ready to share power, stop talking so much, slow down, and check our biases, RJ ain’t gonna work. Another pitfall is not understanding that our policies of punishment, like our criminal (in)justice system rests on racism and white supremacy. Folks who don’t have a firm grasp of critical race theory, racial equity, and antiracism will struggle with RJ. So get a grasp of it.

A final pitfall, as I mentioned earlier, is forgetting to address every other aspect of education including the curriculum, instructional practices, assessments, and physical space. This is where things like culturally responsive teaching, project based learning, standards based grading, and ethnic studies come in. Those pieces along with restorative justice are what antiracism looks like in schools.

*EL Education is proud to host diverse voices and offer a platform for dialogue on topics impacting educators and students. Views of guest bloggers are their own and may differ from the views of EL Education.