The Problem With Restorative Justice In Public Education - And Response

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

I grew up in the idyllic town of Cleveland, Tn. Nestled on the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. I was fortunate to be from a town that valued faith, family, and education. It was a quintessential life for an American boy.

I lived on Sycamore Drive growing up. I look back and see the kids I grew up with are all successful and thriving adults. It is an amazing story; it didn’t happen by luck.

I know most of the kids I grew up with had two-parent homes, both their parents worked jobs, and all of us lived in modest homes. Most went to church somewhere on Sunday. We were very much a blue-collar community. If there drugs and alcohol, we never saw it. (Although some of us had the occasional beer in high school.) The drinking age was 18 at that time. We listened to rock music. The go-to radio station early on was WFLI until KZ106 came along. The disc jockey we all listened to was Tommy Jett, who is now in the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame.

Education was a large part of our lives. The big question was: would you choose to go to high school in the city or the county. It was Cleveland or Bradley. That was the choice. No matter the choice, you were going to get a quality education. There was a high school in Charleston, on the northern end of the county. But that was not a choice for us. Besides, who would want to be a Panther, when you could be a Blue Raider or a Bear.

The teachers in our community schools shared the values of our community. You would see teachers at the grocery store or church on the weekends. The last thing you would want would be for Mrs. Miller or Mrs. Painter to see you at the grocery store with your mom and give a behavior report that was less than flattering.

That didn’t mean we didn’t get in trouble. We just knew that somewhere there was a line you didn’t cross, and if you did then your teacher and your parent would meet at the school or in public and the outcome would not be pleasant for you when you got home. Parents supported teachers and teachers reinforced the values that we learned at home. It was a tag-team effort.

When we look today, we see so many teachers, parents and children disconnected. Society is being torn apart and our culture is changing before our eyes. Parents are out of the picture and children are raising themselves. Parents do not trust schools, and teachers are not supported by parents. Children do not listen to parents or teachers. It is a problem.

The latest trend to tackle the issue in schools is Restorative Justice. If you listen to “experts” the objective is to reduce the number of suspensions. However, in these efforts to reduce suspensions, other students and teachers are left suffering. Often, Restorative Justice is not concerned with rehabilitating offending students, the objective is to merely reduce suspensions and avoid punitive consequences for student actions.

A frequent pattern of disruptive children being endlessly returned to the classroom without any actual change in their behavior is emerging. Schools have to be able to remove continuously disruptive students from classes. Ideally, constantly disruptive students should be placed in high-quality alternative education settings where they can receive long-term, intensive interventions. We especially need to strengthen the authority of teachers who manage defiant students. The concept of Restorative Justice may be noble, but the implementation is often flawed and harmful.

Some of the other problems for this form of discipline to work include that all participants have to buy into the process. That is never going to happen. Schools, parents, and students are never going to be on the same page regarding student discipline. The concept is not supposed to be an alternative to punishment, which it has become. The objective should be behavior change, not just a reduction in student suspensions.

Student discipline should be designed to improve behavior. In that regard, there is not just one victim. It is not a student versus a teacher scenario, but rather a chronically disruptive student interrupting an entire class of fellow students. Should parents be made aware when their child’s class is constantly interrupted?  Many educators think so.  These other students are victims, as is their education. Restorative Justice proponents are seeking to make educators take even more time away from instruction to put in effort and time to deal with a chronic behavior problem. The modeled misbehavior could have a negative impact on other students who are deprived of instruction time. They may emulate this negative behavior for attention.

Perhaps I look at life in the simplest of terms. Where I grew up, misbehavior and defiant conduct were not acceptable. Parents and teachers would work together to address any behavior problem. My parents would not be as concerned with my opinion of my behavior as they would be of a teacher’s opinion. There would be unpleasant consequences for continual misbehavior. I suspect all the children on Sycamore Drive in Cleveland, Tennessee all had similar experiences. We all turned out alright and that is real justice.

J.C. Bowman
Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee

* * * 

Thank you for taking the time to delve into the issues classrooms across the country are facing. I can sense your concern for students, classrooms, and teachers. Considering your position, I am sure you you have gained much experience in different discipline tactics in schools. I am responding to both agree and refute a few points you brought up. 

Restorative justice is not simply a trend. This program has been around since 1970 and utilized in schools since 1994. It seems that the flawed implementation of restorative justice in our schools is the root of why it may not be successful. Restorative justice has led to a reduction in delinquent behavior and improved student’s perceptions of fairness as well as the offender. It seems that user error is, in fact, the issue here not the concept of restorative justice. 

Teachers should not be held to the standard of reinforcing values students learn at home. The world has changed and evolved. Educators should not be expected to adhere to the diverse family values. There is actually less stress involved for teachers by utilizing the restorative justice. According to a testimonial of a teacher, operating under restorative justice has led to better relationships with students, less stress from unresolved conflicts, and less time spent investigating who did what because students are less afraid to admit what they have done. 

Hannah McNelly 


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