Restorative justice is being implemented at Acalanes and across the U.S.


Tori Rector/Creative Commons "Justice Gavel" by toridawnrector is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

School districts throughout the United States have worked to implement restorative justice and restorative practices in their schools and classrooms.

In recent years, school districts throughout the United States, including the Acalanes Union High School District, have worked to implement restorative justice and restorative practices in their schools and classrooms.

Restorative practice is an umbrella term that refers both to preventative and after-the-fact measures to reduce conflict between individuals, meaning people can use restorative practices both before and after an incident takes place. Restorative justice is a type of restorative practice that specifically promotes healing between offenders and their victims, only occurring after an event takes place.

Although people apply the theory of restorative justice in a variety of ways, there is an overarching understanding that restorative justice is a supplementary system involved in punishment processes that offers healing instead of solely punishing wrongdoers after a crime or conflict takes place.

Restorative justice “ is a proactive way of building and maintaining community, creating [an] environment for learning, dealing with harboring conflict when it arises, and then providing individual support for students and adults who need it in order for them to be [a] fully functioning part of our community,” Restorative Justice Coordinator at the Oakland Unified School District David Yusem said.

Long before the idea of restorative justice reached the U.S., it existed as a form of peacemaking in Indigenous communities across the world.

“There are people that tend to practice similar versions of it, like the Māori in New Zealand. A lot of people that use restorative justice now in this modern [world] claim the Māori as the original people who sort of gave them this practice,” Yusem said.

Howard Zehr, a criminologist nicknamed the “grandfather of restorative justice,” introduced the modern concept of restorative justice in the 1970s: a dialogue-based recovery process that helps offenders recognize the harm they caused.

During Zehr’s time working closely with the criminal justice system, he noticed several flaws within the system: the treatment of criminals, the ways prisons disciplined these criminals, and most notably, how there were little to no opportunities for criminals to grow from their actions. Zehr believed that solely punishing offenders did not fix their behaviors nor mindsets.

“One of [the reasons for the creation of restorative justice] was that we were concerned that victims’ needs were not being met. In fact, they were being traumatized and hurt further by the justice system,” Zehr said. “Secondly, we knew we were punishing lots of people in the name of justice, but really it did not hold them accountable, [and] it did not help them understand what they were doing, [so] it just really did not make sense.”

Zehr witnessed the criminal justice system obstruct communication between offenders, victims, and the community, influencing the development of his restorative justice methodology.

“The community is not involved … We felt like the community was being disempowered when the justice system took over,” Zehr said.

Restorative justice works with oppressors to help them understand the flaws of their actions through dialogue and gives the victims a chance to find closure from difficult events. In the judicial system, judges, police officers, and victim services can suggest restorative justice dialogues for criminals. Many legal experts view restorative justice as beneficial to those who committed offenses.

“If somebody was coming up for a parole hearing where there is the opportunity to get out a lot earlier than your sentence could potentially be, I think the parole board would love to hear about restorative justice efforts that that person has engaged in,” an attorney at Oakland’s The Nieves Law Firm Victoria Hirsch said. 

While Zehr originally developed restorative justice for criminal offenses, dialogue-based restorative practices eventually spread into school systems.

“It started in the criminal justice system, but people began to realize that the schools are really little criminal justice systems. They were using the same punishment methods, and they were no more effective in schools than they were in the criminal justice system,” Zehr said.

Restorative justice in school systems varies in its usage, depending on the frequency of disciplinary actions, available resources, and location. In the Oakland school district, restorative justice is one of the first actions administration suggests when a conflict arises between members of the school community. The prevalence of restorative justice in the Oakland district  allows students to become self-sufficient in leading restorative practices for themselves. 

“I walked into a group of students having a conversation. I was like, ‘You all need to be in class’, and they were like ‘We had an argument, so we are having a restorative conversation. We are helping each other work through it.’ I was floored and amazed that they were facilitating it themselves,” Oakland High School Principal Pamela Moy said.

Despite students’ independent intent, experts suggest that individuals who lead formal restorative dialogues should acquire some level of training.

“There are three tiers [of training]. We mostly do two of those,” said Robin Roberts, Restorative Justice in Schools Coordinator and a Youth Program Director at Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. “The first one is community building. That training is mostly about relationship building [and] connecting with students and schools … The second one is harm circles. When conflict arises, we teach people how to mediate situations and how to do the proper steps or prep work to prepare to handle a conflict.”

Officials in the Oakland district routinely discuss the topic to ensure that staff members are knowledgeable on how to carry out the process.

“Much of the team building [and] relationship building aspects of restorative justice play out at the very beginning. We actually start most of our staff and faculty meetings with restorative questions so that we ourselves can be practicing that,” Moy said.

At Oakland High School, Moy promotes certain tenets for individuals engaging in restorative conversations to increase the success rates of dialogue circles.

“We are going to take it at face value that we are coming in [to the conversation] honest. The phrase is ‘speak from the heart,’ so you are going to speak from the heart but also what we say here stays here, so if we speak outside of the circle, we are breaking trust,” Moy said.

In addition to this value of trust, Oakland High School uses a talking stick to give each participant the chance to share their thoughts in a civil manner.

“You can pass [your turn to speak] if you want to, but generally those in the altercation do not pass because if you are going to pass, you are not resolving anything,” Moy said. 

The Acalanes district similarly encourages the usage of restorative justice as a means of dealing with conflicts that reach administration and restorative practices as a means of creating positive environments within classrooms if smaller conflicts take place.

“Restorative justice is used by administrators, counselors, and the Bias Incident Reporting System. Restorative practices are used in the classroom. It is a way for teachers to think differently about their classroom environments and to think about their rules differently,” Acalanes Associate Superintendent Amy McNamara said.

There are training sessions to ensure that administrators in the Acalanes district use restorative practices correctly and effectively.

“We have had different training for associate principals probably every other year for probably six or seven, maybe eight years,” Acalanes Superintendent Dr. John Nickerson said.

At Acalanes High School, administrators apply restorative practices to a wide array of situations. Although these situations are not explicit in the Acalanes student handbook, administrators adjust restorative practices specifically for each individual case. 

 “If two students have a conflict, [if] there is an incident of bullying, [if] there is a physical fight, [or] if there is a disagreement that is leading to hard feelings or bad behavior, then restorative practices are implemented to resolve those issues that may have occurred,” Acalanes Principal Eric Shawn said.

In the past, the Acalanes district used restorative justice for incidents on and off campus, as well as for online interactions.

“We have done harm circles with groups of students when someone has posted something racist or inappropriate,” McNamara said.

In addition, administrators may use a restorative practice in conjunction with a form of disciplinary action.

“Restorative practices can be used in lieu of a consequence or with a consequence. A restorative practice may be [used] for a student to meet with a counselor and another student who they got into an argument with or [be used] after both were suspended for fighting. I think the important message here is that a restorative practice is usually part of a greater consequence,” McNamara said.

Many students at Acalanes lack information about the district’s methods of discipline, including restorative practices, that administrators use on campus for rule violations.

“I think generally people know ‘Don’t do drugs in the bathroom’, ‘Don’t break stuff,’ and general things, but I don’t know the consequences for most [actions],” Acalanes junior Ben Tunick said.

Some students hope that administrators will work to increase understanding on how the Aca;ames district handles conflicts.

“I think [the school] should take an Academy period aside and take it to talk about the consequences of your actions, like when we have one of those equity lessons during Academy,” Acalanes sophomore Cooper Edelman said.

Students who are aware of restorative justice support Acalanes’ usage of it.

“I think [restorative justice] should be used at Acalanes because it’s not as much of a punishment as it is more like a learning opportunity for any students who have to go through it,” Edelman said. 

Shawn seeks to gather Acalanes staff and establish a consensus on the meaning of restorative practices so Acalanes staff can execute them in an effective manner.

“I believe that we need to do some work together to get on the same page about what we mean when we talk about [restorative practices], but absolutely we use restorative practices to help resolve conflicts between any individuals, whether student or a staff, adult, a parent, community member. I would absolutely advocate for the use of restorative practices for everybody,” Shawn said. 

From a neurological standpoint, restorative justice allows for efficient mental recovery after an incident, making use of the human brain’s ability to rewire itself through empathy.

“We had a neuroscientist that was looking at these victim-offender conferences one time, and he said ‘Do you know why they work so well? Our human brain is designed to connect with other people.’ … If you have been abused or neglected, those neural pathways develop in unhealthy ways, but he said ‘because our brains are wired to connect with other people, nothing rewires the brain quicker than experiencing empathy,’” Zehr said.

Offenders and victims establishing empathy proves to be a major factor in reconciliation.

“[In one instance], one [kid] was African American and the other kid was Latino. The African American kid stole the Latino kid’s phone … That [Latino] kid told us in a story in the circle that he forcefully moved from Mexico because it was unsafe for him, but they left their dad behind. He had a picture, one picture, of his dad on a SIM card, and him losing that phone meant everything to him, [and] the SIM card more than anything,” Roberts said. “[The story] touched the African American kid so deeply because he lost his father when he was young, so that restorative justice circle showed the African American kid how to be empathetic and understanding.”

A major motivation for the use of restorative justice is the beneficial psychological effect it has for both the offender and victim of an incident.

Springer, a German multinational publishing company, conducted a study in December 2019 titled “Examining the Effectiveness of Restorative Justice in Reducing Victims’ Post-Traumatic Stress.” Results from the study concluded that in a sample of 1373 participants who were victims of crime and participated in restorative justice programs, all participants felt significantly less anger and fear towards the offender and incident, as well as significantly less emotional distress after participating in the restorative justice program.

In addition to the Springer study, Zehr references a study in England that concluded similar beneficial results for both victims and offenders.

“The research shows that victims, if you talk about the crime again, are much more satisfied when they make an offender process it. A big study in England found that they are less traumatized and there is less heart disease as a result. They found that victims were much better served. They found generally that people are less likely to reoffend if they go through a process like [restorative justice]. They found that the people who go through this have fewer stereotypes about each other and fewer fears about each other,” Zehr said.

Still, although generally successful, restorative justice sometimes fails to achieve its intended effect between an offender and victim.

“We have certainly stepped in to mediate harm between teachers and staff members. Sometimes it has been successful, [and] other times it has not,” McNamara said. “Students have to agree to the process, and sometimes they are not ready. You cannot make a student apologize for something they did if they are not sorry, and sometimes people are not in the mood to forgive someone, so it is important that students genuinely agree to it.”

Administrators find that participants of restorative justice reach the most successful outcome when both the offender and victim are open to the process.

“If they seem to be open to looking at it from a different angle and are recognizing and have some regrets for what happened, that is generally when it is most fruitful,” Acalanes Superintendent Nickerson said. “When people have really dug in and then you into a restorative situation, and they hear a different perspective, and they open up and they grow a bit, [they] are able to repair some harm and move on with different behaviors.”

Restorative justice emphasizes personal growth and encourages individuals to use restorative justice outside of programs.

“I spent a lot of my time talking about the overall philosophy [and] principles of restorative justice. You can look at restorative justice in two ways: you can think of it as practices like family group conferences, circles, or victim offender conferencing, but beyond that, it’s a philosophy. It’s a set of values and principles that can be applied whether there is any kind of program around or not,” Zehr said.

Restorative justice also provides opportunities to combat systemic racism with the goal of achieving reconciliation.

“The work of restorative justice must be done through a racial justice lens because of how this country was founded and how it continues to operate, which is from a very punitive sense,” Yusem said. “Restorative justice needs to be the antidote to that. This country was founded on genocide in terms of native people and on slavery of millions of Africans brought to this country to basically build the country. [Restorative justice] is about repairing harm and healing and not about punishing people [and] not about casting people out of the community but bringing people together. We need to pay a lot of attention to the racism that exists within the systems and then provide an alternative to that.”

Zehr sees restorative justice as an opportunity to create progress for the future through increased communication between all people.

“Traditional things just aren’t working. Whether it is schools or the justice system, it’s just a disaster in a lot of ways, so more people are looking for a hopeful approach,” Zehr said. “I’ve had lawyers and judges tell me that they were so depressed about their jobs until they learned about restorative justice, and it gave them a new sense of hope, a new sense of direction.”

At Acalanes, more than anything, the main goal of restorative justice is to create an atmosphere in which everyone feels accepted and each person’s humanity is preserved. 

“[Restorative justice is how we] respond to incidents that happen that cause harm in a way that ensures that we can repair the harm, that we can restore everybody’s humanity, and stand in a community to ensure connection so that we can move forward together and be the best community we can be,” Shawn said.