In 2015, I started a three-year journey to acquire my doctorate in educational leadership. On top of going back to graduate school, I was a high school principal. It was a job I loved and for which I felt tremendous passion. The high school I led was plagued by a history of low academic performance, discipline issues, attendance problems, and low morale among faculty and staff. I was hoping to introduce alternative measures for discipline, but I also knew that teachers felt that the growing pressure to eliminate suspensions was creating unsafe environments.
I drew from my own experience teaching emotional and behavioral youth and also worked with a team of dedicated individuals to begin the process of turning around our high school. We grew programs, implemented a rigorous curriculum, and combated years of allowed behaviors. But all this work also led me toward what I thought would ultimately become the subject of my dissertation: restorative justice, an approach to discipline designed to go beyond punitive responses to infractions by attempting to rehabilitate offenders and reconcile them with their victims and communities. I was intrigued by the practice—which had grown out of correctional facilities in New Zealand—and saw it as a way to marry social-emotional teaching and learning with my commitment to reducing the school-to-prison pipeline that’s caused by things like over-suspending students.
For a year, I dove into the research on restorative justice. I read hundreds of articles, dissertations, thesis papers, and case studies on its effects in places like Los Angeles and New York City. I was seeking an historical perspective of how large urban districts had implemented the program.
The thread that consistently ran through almost all of them was that, by and large, the practice didn’t work or wasn’t working.
There were myriad reasons why, but the most glaring was the size of the effort required to implement the program throughout an entire school district. The training was time-consuming and buy in from teachers was essential but hard to secure. Most of the training I reviewed was of the “one and done” variety, in which teachers were left to implement a practice with few resources or a single person was employed to run the entire program.
But restorative justice also seemed to fail because districts were adopting it for the wrong reasons. I read about places that substituted it for punitive consequences as a way to reduce their overall suspension numbers, not necessarily to rehabilitate offending students. In a district next door to mine, leaders bragged about their huge reduction in suspensions, only to see the program fall apart as disruptive children were continuously returned to class without any actual change in their behavior.
It was clear from my research that if a school or district was not 100 percent committed to using the practice as it’s intended, and its staff are not fully trained on how to implement it correctly, it could not succeed.
Before my research, I had been looking forward to rolling out restorative justice at my high school, but what I learned changed my mind.
Then, two years later, my skepticism became full-on opposition when the practice came back to haunt my family in a profoundly personal way.
I had moved on from my old school to work in a different system in a neighboring state, but my kids remained in the district where I had been before, which had recently announced plans to implement restorative justice and hire “deans of culture” at the middle schools. Needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled. But I kept my opinions to myself. I would never challenge a school’s or district’s sincere attempt to better students’ lives.
My silence ended the evening I received a phone call from my sixth grade son’s science teacher. She asked me if any administrator had contacted me over the last month. I told her no but inquired as to why she would ask me that. The horror she shared with me still keeps me up at night.
She told me that my son had been the target of three young boys for a month. They would regularly threaten him, call him names like “homo,” “fag,” and “pussy,” steal his lunch money, and chase him out of school. They ultimately beat him up. My son’s teacher explained to me that she had gone to the vice principal about all of this, so she was astounded to learn that I had not been contacted by anyone from the school.
I immediately asked my son about everything his teacher had told me. He dissolved into tears and said that he didn’t want to go to school anymore. He said he wanted to die.
My happy little boy wanted to die.
I was angry. I sent a strongly worded email to the vice principal and CC’ed the principal. I was contacted the next day and told that my son would go through a restorative justice practice with the three boys he was “accusing” of wrongdoing. Well, I can tell you that I was not about to allow that.
The idea that my son would sit in a circle with three boys who had tormented him for months made me physically sick. He would have no one there to sit beside him and support him. I had been an educator long enough to know what would happen. I may be cynical, but I’m not stupid.
But my son wanted to do it, and he asked me to allow it. He said he just wanted the misery at school to end and thought that this restorative justice stuff could work. I was assured that the “dean of culture” was well trained in the practice—and my son liked him. So I changed my mind and allowed it to happen.
A week later, I received a phone call from the vice principal telling me, “I don’t want to alarm you, but we had a situation at lunch with your son.” He went on to explain that my son came to him during lunch and “claimed” that the same three boys he sat with in the restorative circle had just stolen his lunch money and beat him up. He then said, “Your son’s story is very different than the other boys’ story.” I almost lost my mind. I hung up and called the principal. I explained that my husband and I would be there the next morning and asked them to review the camera footage in the meantime.
The next morning, I had to endure an hour of a vice principal apologizing for what my son had endured. He had reviewed the footage and saw everything my son told him had happened. The school’s solution to the situation was to change my son’s lunch shift—even though all three boys skipped class to come to the cafeteria that day—change two of his classes, and release him early from school to “run home” before the other boys got out of class.
What happened to the aggressors? One was already suspended for assaulting another student, and the other two could not be suspended due to district policy on excessive suspensions for certain groups of students. I, of course, was not supposed to be privy to this information for reasons of confidentiality, but when children’s safety and security are at stake, people talk.
We ultimately pulled our son from the district. I am a career educator and strong believer in public education. But I am a mom first. The school’s handling of my son’s torment and subsequent proposed solutions were unacceptable, and there was not a chance I would keep him in a school where its only way of protecting him was to change his schedule and dismiss him early. The “restorative” circle he sat in, bravely facing his aggressors, only made him a target for more torment.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I still believe that restorative justice—if adopted for the right reasons and implemented correctly—is a much needed practice, but I can’t support the way it is currently being used. If and when that changes, I’m on board.
The reality is that theory and practice are very different. My research of the theory convinced me that I should introduce restorative justice in my school, but my research of the practice in similar schools and districts changed my mind.
Editor’s note: This essay was first published by Project Forever Free.