These days, one doesn't have to look far to find a story about a confrontation involving a school officer and a student of color or to put her finger on a report detailing educational inequities associated with race, gender, and class. In her new book, Justice on Both Sides: Transforming Education Through Restorative Justice, Maisha T. Winn, a professor of education at the University of California, Davis, makes a compelling case for the use of restorative justice (RJ) practices in schools as both an antidote to these troubling trends and as a way to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline that has destroyed the lives of too many young people of color.
Most readers are probably familiar with the case of Shakara, the sixteen-year-old student at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina who was put in a chokehold by a school officer, forcibly pulled out of her seat, and dragged across the floor and out of her classroom. Her crime? Refusing to put her cell phone away. Unfortunately, it wasn't an isolated incident, and Winn uses it to frame her questioning of the punitive practices and zero-tolerance policies in place at many public schools in the United States.
Indeed, it was Winn's own questions about Shakara's experience that became the impetus for her book. "What resources, other than arrest, were available to the administrators, teachers, and staff at Spring Valley High to address conflict in the classroom?" she asks. "How could the adults involved have responded differently? Why has it become standard practice to arrest students for such minor incidents?...I argue that we have yet to pause and thoughtfully examine such patterns as stakeholders, particularly from the perspectives of new and seasoned teachers, school staff, and students."
In her book, Winn does just that, reflecting on her experiences as a scholar, former teacher, and teacher researcher — experiences that inform her analysis of RJ practice and how best to apply that analysis to create lasting change. Having noted that under zero-tolerance policies, African-American, Latinx, and Native-American students are disproportionately subjected to harshly punitive practices, including removal from classrooms, suspension, and expulsion, she explains restorative justice as an approach to discipline that aims to address trauma that may be responsible for the student's behavior. The idea, she writes, is to build a sense of respect and mutual understanding while giving students space to take responsibility for their actions.
Perhaps most importantly, restorative justice requires both sides to be "open to the possibility of not always being right but instead making things right." As Winn explains, the three pillars of the approach are harms and needs, obligations, and engagement — in other words, determining the needs of students who cause harm and recognizing that they may have been harmed; creating a culture of accountability for both students and educators; and cultivating a participatory democracy model in the classroom.
A good deal of what Winn has learned about restorative justice is based on her experience as a participant observer at a Midwestern high school that began to adopt RJ practices in 2014 and 2015. Winn shares the perspectives of the students she got to know, students whose voices should be the most important in conversations about their needs but as often as not go unheard. She explores the technique known as "restorative justice circles," in which participants come together in a literal circle and wait for a facilitator to initiate a conversation with a prompt or question. Circle participants listen until it is their turn to speak, which comes when the "talking piece," which is passed around the circle, reaches them. Rather than being stuck with a fixed identity such as "student" or "sophomore," students are trained to be "circle keepers" (i.e., facilitators), so that they are part of the solution instead of just passive bystanders.
In her interviews with students, Winn was able to tease out their views of restorative justice, what it meant to them, and how the circles helped them evolve their understanding of justice more generally. "Before, I kinda thought [justice] was [if] you did something wrong, something wrong should be done to you. If you do something wrong you go to jail," one circle keeper told her. "But then I came here and started getting into restorative justice, and I started thinking there's a lot of things that's behind it. Not all people deserve to go to jail; some people do need counseling, but for certain crimes they always get sent there...and sometimes a little bit of counseling and connecting could probably fix whatever was damaged to make them do the crime."
One of the recurring themes in her interviews was equality. The RJ circles allowed students to feel empowered and were a first step in the dismantling of the unequal power dynamic that exists between teachers and students. "There was mutual respect," Winn writes, "as opposed to a culture where students are expected to show respect that they do not see reciprocated."
To get there, Winn argues, educators need to embrace four key pedagogical stances: history matters, race matters, justice matters, and language matters. Indeed, the four concepts, which are interconnected, with history as the outermost of four concentric circles and language at the center, shape the way educators engage with and build relationships with students. Winn's interviews with educators at the Midwestern high school reveal that while they had embraced the idea of "how local history is inextricably linked to both race and local power dynamics" and had become more "mindful about how one uses language to speak to and about children — especially children from historically marginalized communities," they still had work to do in terms of examining and unlearning "the social construction of race, racism, and racist lenses and ideas" and in adopting an expansive definition of justice that "insist[s] we do right by people" and work to create a world where "everyone — irrespective of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality, or ability — is able to live with dignity and is recognized as belonging."
By presenting the perspectives of both students and educators, Winn is able to highlight the impact restorative justice had on the school community as a whole and how it helped bridge the gap between administrators, staff, teachers, and students. Rather than isolating misbehaving students through suspensions and expulsion, restorative justice tries to get to the root of the problem and create a school culture in which students are able to express themselves and feel that they are being heard. The unfortunate reality, however, is that most schools have neither the will nor the resources to introduce RJ practices without compromising other priorities. "If restorative justice circles are to serve as a tool for creating and sustaining boundary-crossing social networks for students and staff," writes Winn, "then everyone in the school community must be held accountable as a stakeholder."
Based on the view that teaching is a justice-seeking endeavor and learning is a civil and human right, Winn makes the case for what she calls "transformative justice teacher education" as a way to equip teachers with the tools they need to implement restorative justice practices in their classrooms. To that end, she provides a series of subject-specific questions for teachers to consider. For example, math teachers might ask themselves: Who am I calling on and at what frequency? How can I physically set up my classroom so that all students have a chance to participate in classroom discussions? How do I create a classroom culture in which all students view themselves as "math people"? The English language arts teacher might ask: Who gets to be the reader/writer/thinker/speaker in my classroom? Who do we need to hear from? What voices/stories/perspectives are missing from the discussion? And the social studies/history teacher might ask: How can I use the subject matter to create a participatory culture in my classroom? What is the role of social studies/history in cultivating purpose and belonging?
Training teachers and enabling them to incorporate RJ practices into their classrooms is just a first step if we hope to dismantle structural racism in our schools and in society. As Winn writes, restorative justice processes "give us an opportunity and an intergenerational way to learn together to talk about race" and develop the vocabularies needed to do so. By engaging "in processes that allow us to listen to one another…we begin the process and practice of restoring justice." Surely, that is something we owe our children.
Zahra Bokhari is a development specialist at Foundation Center.