Reaching for Restorative Justice Programs in Public Schools

Since embracing restorative justice programs, San Francisco schools have seen a drop in school violence and improved behavior in class.

| September/October 2012

  • Classroom
    In restorative justice, you have to actually have the offender and the victim sit down and discuss what happened and how the offender can make it better.
  • Student Hallway
    “The challenge is that at some schools there are only pockets of belief in restorative practices,” said Claudia Anderson, executive director of Student Support Services for San Francisco Unified. Even when administrators implement restorative practices, the staff sometimes botches the process, and parents sometimes resist.

  • Classroom
  • Student Hallway

Instead of being kicked out for fighting, stealing, talking back, or other disruptive behavior, public school students in San Francisco are being asked to listen to each other, write letters of apology, work out solutions with the help of parents and educators, or engage in community service. All these practices fall under the umbrella of “restorative justice”—asking wrongdoers to make amends before resorting to punishment.

Restorative justice programs launched in 2009 when the San Francisco Board of Education passed a resolution for schools to find alternatives to suspension and expulsion. In the previous seven years, suspensions in San Francisco spiked by 152 percent, to a total of 4,341—mostly among African Americans, who despite being one-tenth of the district made up half of suspensions and more than half of expulsions.

This disparity fed larger social inequalities: Two decades of national studies have found that expelled or suspended students are vastly more likely to drop out of school or end up in jail than those who face other kinds of consequences for their actions.

“My first act as a school board member was to push a student out of his school,” recalled Jane Kim, a former community organizer who as a member of the Board of Education needed to approve all expulsions.

“That’s not what I expected to do,” she said, especially when it seemed to exacerbate the social inequalities she had pledged to fight in her position.

Board colleague Sandra Lee Fewer said, “Sixty percent of inmates in the San Francisco county jail have been students in the San Francisco public school system, and the majority of them are people of color. We just knew we had to somehow stop this schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline.”

Sam Crespi
8/31/2012 7:38:44 PM

I first learned about restorative justice from an article in the Christian Science Monitor describing a similar tribal process used in Africa for child soldiers returning home. From there I researched more details in other indigenous rituals of restorative justice and have talked about this for over a decade. I'm delighted to hear about the practice in Northern California. What I sorely missed in this article was dialogue from students/peers and parents about their experiences with the process. What it meant to them, how it changed them? Thank you for the article, but I hope there will be a much needed follow up with deeper, more personal insight that will provoke others to find out about restorative justice and bring it into their relationships, their schools, their communities. I've found that the growth and insights young people gain gives them new confidence, security and spurs them to open up to people they might not have. The process could be an important part of healing our wounded nation, of creating connections for positive change now and in the future.

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