From the penitentiary to the public school: Restorative Justice warps discipline

A criminal sentencing reform strategy with a dismal record of success has oddly been embraced by K-12 schools attempting to manage growing behavioral disruptions in the learning environment.  

Restorative justice is “a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.” 

It is presented by advocates as the more desirable alternative to retributive justice; indeed, it is put forward as retributions’ opposite, focusing on repairing the harm done by crime rather than punishing the offense. 

Restorative justice’s proponents believe a climate of dialogue and negotiation can ably replace the naturally adversarial nature of prosecution and punishment, leading to a healing for all parties, both perpetrator and victim. 

The concept has been widely adopted by state and local authorities throughout the criminal justice system as part of “fundamental reforms” seeking to decrease rates of incarceration and recidivism. 

As described by author/educator Heather Wolpert-Gawron, in an article for the education blog Edutopia, “In sum, restorative justice helps a student to own what she/he did, make it right for those hurt or affected, and involve the community in helping both the victim and the offender. Restorative justice acknowledges that those who do wrong need healing as well.” 

But it has proved reckless and ineffectual, with one academic article noting, “We must be careful not to be hasty in embracing this option …” 

However, the failure of restorative justice when applied to hardened criminals hasn’t convinced educators of its disutility in influencing young, developing personalities in public schools.  

Restorative justice programs have been adopted across the country by school systems struggling to maintain order following the expulsion of School Resource Officers (SRO) in the wake of the George Floyd riots and related protests. 

When students returned to in-person schooling after the COVID lockdowns, many found hallways unmonitored with the SRO gone. The spike in violence and other criminality has been stunning. 

In Denver, where restorative justice has been the norm for the better part of a decade, the post-COVID return to school saw 102 student fights, 11 sexual assaults, eight assaults on staff and 29 weapons violations, including four loaded firearms and a stabbing – just within the first month.  

Yet, this eruption of violence didn’t dissuade administrators from continuing their social experimentation with student safety. Bringing back the SROs was never considered.  

Instead, white teachers in the Denver system were trained to check their possible racial biases under the assumption that the three-times higher rate of minority student suspensions over their white counterparts was founded in implicit racial bias. 

What was not factored into the equation was the stark reality of higher rates of offenses committed by minority students.  

The National Center for Education Statistics has conducted an annual survey on school violence since 1993. When asked if they had been involved in a physical fight at school, data shows American Indian students fought the most (18.9%), followed by blacks (15.5%), Pacific Islanders (9.1%), Latinos (7.8%), whites (6.4%) and Asians (4.9%). These percentages have varied little over time. 

“Sometimes people simply neglect what’s clear from the data,” Gail Heriot, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law, flatly tells RealClearInvestigations. “It seems to me that wokeism is a large part of why people reject the data.” 

Wokeism is indeed evident in many education decisions, specifically regarding the intersections of race, violence, criminality and poor achievement.  

Circumstances that indicate the failure of restorative justice are glossed over by the redefining of offenses – deemphasizing many of the unlawful behaviors by encouraging victims to refrain from filing police reports, opting instead to engage in restorative practices with their tormentors, facilitated by a restorative coordinator.  

Research shows students who are suspended or expelled from class are about three times more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system within the subsequent year, a phenomenon known as the “school-to-prison-pipeline.” 

In Denver’s case, the lack of success in reducing the rate of offenses warranting suspension or expulsion led to a redefinition of offenses, making all but the most serious of criminal acts eligible for participation in a “restorative circle,” where repeat offenders have learned to game the process, saying what facilitators want to hear with no intention of following through. 

When the student offends again, the cycle repeats – the very definition of recidivism. 

Meanwhile, Denver schools proudly claim a 70% reduction in suspensions. 

The same dynamic is evident in the criminal justice system, where restorative practices have reduced the number of inmates incarcerated but have had the opposite effect on recidivism rates.  

The failures of restorative practices are identical, whether in a school setting or a criminal court. Consequences are muted to provide a favorable look, but the underlying behaviors remain unaffected, at the expense of the safety of students and society both.