Evaluating the Effects of School Based Restorative Practices
Schools recruit exclusionary discipline—such as suspensions and expulsions—to deter students from misbehaving, and to protect students from the harms associated with exposure to student misbehavior. While often implemented with good intentions, recent research indicates that exposure to discipline increases (rather than deters) misbehavior; increases risks of dropout, juvenile involvement, and adult incarceration; and exerts secondary harms, reducing school climate among those whose peers are suspended.
Black students bear the brunt of school discipline. Across student subgroups and school contexts, Black students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled. Whether one looks at female students, economically disadvantaged students, preschool students, or students in charter schools, Black students are overrepresented among those disciplined. Research demonstrates that stark racial disparities in discipline are not merely a function of racial disparities in student misbehavior, nor of how students sort into schools. Instead, disparities are largely driven by school practices. The harmfulness and unevenness of school discipline thus present a pressing equity issue: how can schools ameliorate racial disparities in discipline?
In reply, scholars have suggested, and schools have implemented, restorative practices, which include proactive practices to inculcate conflict resolution skills and strengthen community bonds (e.g., community building circles) and responsive practices to resolve conflicts and repair relationships (e.g., harm repair circles). Proponents argue that because these practices address a root cause of student discipline, they have the potential to ameliorate racial disparities while enhancing school climates, academic engagement, and academic performance.
However, a review of extant quantitative research surfaces a critical distinction between restorative programs and restorative practices. Restorative programs are systems of hiring, training, and support that are designed to encourage school community members to engage in restorative practices. Restorative practices are the specific actions that community members might engage in in a restorative school, and that theoretically can accrue to certain benefits for students, staff, and community members. Research has focused almost exclusively on the impact of restorative programs and has shown mixed results. This research also suffers from a core challenge: programs often do not accrue to students being exposed to restorative practices. Prior research thus leaves unclear whether restorative practices can have intended impacts.
This study merges and leverages multiple forms of California administrative data to track school practices and student outcomes over space and time, and finds that students who gain exposure to restorative practices see declines in discipline and increases in academic achievement, and declines in related racial disparities. It also finds that schools that increase their use of restorative practices see declines in misbehavior, gang membership, victimization, depressive symptoms, and substance abuse; and improvements in GPA and school climate. Taken together, results present a strong case for the effectiveness of restorative practices at improving outcomes for students and schools. However, if these analyses answer one question about restorative practices, then they suggest another: how can schools increase student exposure to these potent practices?
A review of implementation guides surfaces insights for employing restorative programming that can engender student exposure to restorative practices. Districts and states can empower schools to persevere in their implementation of restorative practices by providing sustained funding. Schools, meanwhile, can take three approaches. First, they can commit to culture change by reducing reliance on exclusionary discipline. Second, they can preempt caregiver concerns via proactive communication about the psychological benefits of restorative approaches (and the potential harms of punitive ones). And, finally, schools can ensure widespread utilization (and exposure) by providing staff throughout the school with training regarding how to implement restorative practices in varied situations and when interacting with students of all backgrounds—and by empowering and incentivizing staff to use these practices.