The skirmish last fall began on a Montgomery County, Maryland, school bus.
Someone—no one is exactly sure who—tossed a water bottle from the back of the bus, smacking a sixth grader sitting near the front. The next day, the water victim retaliated by throwing a container of milk to the back, dousing a seventh grader.
The two girls, who live near each other in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., were headed for a fight — and possibly suspension. But their parents called the school for help, and one of Montgomery County Public School’s newly appointed instructional specialists in restorative justice got to work.
With permission from the families, Floyd Branch III, the specialist, brought the girls together for lunch and a “restorative circle” to defuse the tension. Neither of the girls really wanted to target the other, but they were embarrassed by the incident and by kids laughing at them on the bus.
“They were able to talk it out and say they were sorry,” Branch said. “Children can’t learn if they don’t understand what the mistake was, or when there’s no conversation.” The process did not turn the two into friends, he said, but they have been able to ride the bus together without any more fighting.
This situation, and its resolution, is a good example of restorative justice at work, say supporters of this approach to discipline and community building. Instead of focusing on punishment, restorative practices invite those in conflict to talk through the issue so they can understand the harm caused, take responsibility and find ways to move forward.
Elements of restorative justice have long been used in indigenous cultures, and, since the 1970s, as part of alternative sentencing programs in the criminal justice system. The practice spread to schools in the 1990s and accelerated after 2014 as an alternative to “zero-tolerance” suspension and expulsion policies for misbehavior. Those consequences, experts say, are fraught with problems. Exclusionary discipline doesn’t serve as a deterrent and often derails a student’s educational path: Black students, boys, and students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended and expelled than other students, and school administrators often discipline Black students more severely and frequently than white students who engage in the same behaviors.
“If people don’t understand what you’re trying to do, it’s not on them … We have to be open to constructive criticism.”Damon Monteleone, associate superintendent, Montgomery County schools
In 2019, Maryland legislators passed a law requiring districts to incorporate restorative approaches in their discipline policies. Montgomery County, which at over 160,000 students is the largest school district in Maryland, has leaned into the practice, adding staff whose job is to help to build and repair relationships among all members of a school community — students, teachers, parents and administrators. There are still suspensions for serious offenses, according to the system’s code of conduct, but restorative justice is among the discipline options that schools can use.
Shauna-Kay Jorandby, who oversees school engagement, behavioral health and academics for the district, said that based on the results of a recent survey, students themselves are looking for the supports that restorative justice promises.
“We know that our kids need help communicating, talking and understanding each other. We know that they need help with conflict, whether it’s at school or at home. We know they need help with the stressors in their life,” Jorandby said. “I think that [restorative justice] is one avenue. We have to be able to address that in our schools.”
But the school system’s efforts are coming at a time when there’s been a call among some for stronger penalties for acting out in schools, in response to higher misbehavior rates after kids returned from pandemic shut-downs. In some districts, police, who were banned from campuses in 2020, have been asked to return.
Alternative forms of discipline have often met skepticism. In Montgomery County, some parents, teachers and students have pushed back against restorative justice, saying harsher discipline is sometimes necessary to hold students accountable. Others question the way restorative circles are conducted, noting that the circles are often led by staff from the district’s central office, who the students don’t know or trust. They want to see more training, consistency, and transparency about the process.
The new approach to student behavior is leading to a “free for all” in the schools; kids are getting away with hurting one another, said Ricky Ribeiro, a parent and PTA vice president at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. He wants the district to explain why the restorative approach is better than what’s been used in the past and provide evidence.
“Implementing this system is not going to be easy. It’s unclear if it will be successful, if we even know what success looks like, and if we have enough resources to make it successful,” Ribeiro said. “And yet, MCPS is going all in with the kitchen sink on it and I don’t know that’s a good idea.”
The district’s restorative justice work was put to the test earlier this year after an antisemitic incident roiled a high school.
The school system is coping with a spate of hate, bias and racist incidents — an average of one per day, which is three times higher than previous years, Superintendent Monifa McKnight told the community in an address April 27. Last December, two students on the school debate team at Walt Whitman High School allegedly made antisemitic comments about their Jewish teammates on an off-campus trip.
The offenders were disciplined by the school and the district brought in restorative justice specialists to hold sessions with students. Rachel Barold, who was a ninth grader at the time of the incident, said she felt the process didn’t work in that situation and let the offenders off too easily.
“Restorative justice circles are great for maybe bullying or other offenses at MCPS, but acts of hate against a group of people based on the ethnicity or religion — that is not the place,” said Rachel, who is Jewish. “Restorative justice is a lot about forgiving who did it. And having to sit in the same room with them. It’s really re-traumatizing victims.”
“Children can’t learn if they don’t understand what the mistake was, or when there’s no conversation.”Floyd Branch III, restorative justice specialist
Restorative justice sessions are voluntary, though Rachel said she and other members of the debate team felt pressures to participate. Going into the restorative circles, students didn’t know the district specialists leading the conversation or what to expect, she said. For example, some students had prepared remarks saved on their cellphones, but were told cellphones weren’t allowed. Afterwards, school administrators acknowledged they had made mistakes. She hopes the district will use the feedback to modify a process that she felt favored the offenders over the victims. The principal of the school did not respond to interview requests, and in other articles has declined to share the results of an investigation or what actions were taken, citing student privacy laws.
But in an interview with the Washington Post, principal Robert Dodd said the incidents were taken “deeply seriously.” Whitman’s school paper, The Black and White, reported the students received a month-long suspension from the debate team.
Jorandby said restorative conversations don’t take away the hurt, but they can be a first step to healing, even with hate and bias. The district has developed a consent and feedback form for formal restorative conferences that emphasizes the process is voluntary and gives parents the opportunity to decline consent for their child to participate.
The official consent form is among the ways district officials say they are trying to make the restorative justice program more robust. Last school year, the district hired six more restorative justice specialists in the district’s central office, bringing the total to nine. Each specialist is assigned to serve a cluster of schools. The district is also paying a stipend to a staff member in each school to act as a restorative justice coach. All staff are required to take a short restorative justice training session and administrators have been asked to consider restorative approaches when crafting new goals for school climate, culture and student well-being in school improvement plans.
“It’s a work in progress,” said Damon Monteleone, an associate superintendent in the office of school support and well-being for Montgomery County schools. The district’s own data shows this: Nearly three quarters of school leaders who participated in a self-evaluation released in May said they were either early in their development of restorative justice processes or had no processes in place at all. Only 3 percent believed they had a “mature” process in place.
This is not surprising. With the pandemic and its ensuing disruption of in-person learning, 2022-23 was the first “normal school year” for restorative justice in the schools since the 2019 state policy change, Monteleone said. The district itself is still learning what works, but it’s not ignoring criticism, he said.
“You have to involve your loudest opponents in the process,” Monteleone said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there. If people don’t understand what you’re trying to do, it’s not on them … We have to be open to constructive criticism. We have to hear their concerns.”
The district is reaching out to engage the community through school-based information sessions, at which specialists and administrators discuss just what restorative justice is and listen to input from students and their families.
It can take time for restorative justice to take hold in the culture of a school — as much as three to five years, say experts — and, as with any major shift, the process can be controversial. But research consistently shows the approach has a positive impact on students. A recent report indicates restorative practices improve middle school students’ academic achievement, while reducing suspension rates and disparities, misbehavior, substance abuse and student mental health challenges. It’s most successful when all members of the school community are invested in the restorative culture.
“These practices can be powerful, but the devil is in the details,” said the report’s author, Sean Darling-Hammond, assistant professor of health and education at UCLA. Strong implementation means having high-quality and ongoing training for teachers and staff, getting principals on board, equipping students with conflict resolution skills and reaching out to families early, he said.
“It’s about how you create a shift in the way everybody in a school is doing things,” he said. “Every teacher has a new approach mentally and behaviorally when a student misbehaves. Every student has a tool to manage conflict when it occurs. There are new policies in place that are supportive of this shift … Parents are communicated with about this and understand the value of it.
“It’s a full immersive shift and tracking implementation is very important,” he said.
Such work also needs money. The Maryland law, while well-intentioned, isn’t adequately funded, said David Hornbeck, a former Maryland state school superintendent. In March, he launched Restorative Schools Maryland, a grassroots nonprofit that advocates for restorative justice policies and funding.
Rather than a few people from a district’s central office being called to put out fires, the work of restorative practices requires full-time staff in the schools, Hornbeck said.
“We face a challenge in people thinking that restorative practice is a kind of touchy, feely, namby-pamby, let-the-kids-off-the-hook thing — and that couldn’t be further from truth,” he said. Hornbeck said he also wants schools to track suspensions, teacher turnover, and student absenteeism to make sure their restorative justice practices actually work.
Despite the funding challenges, UCLA’s Darling-Hammond said it’s worth staying the course. “We don’t know the exact perfect recipe for implementation of restorative practices. But what we do know is that, generally speaking, when students experience these practices, they’re much better for it,” he said.
That’s the hope of supporters who embrace the philosophy of fostering positive relationships to improve school climate before conflict happens. In Montgomery County schools, officials say about 80 percent of the restorative justice work is preventative (holding “community circles,” promoting self-care, teaching conflict resolution strategies) and 20 percent is responsive (repair practices and restorative conferences).
Vicki Rotker, a sixth grade teacher at Kingsview Middle School in Germantown, Maryland, said she sees the value in community circles — which encourage kids to share ideas and experiences in a safe environment — at her school, especially since the pandemic. “Experiencing Covid and being isolated, I feel this year there is an extra need and longing to connect,” Rotker said.
As Rotker’s students prepared to participate in a discussion last spring, rearranging their chairs into a circle, she reminded them to set aside any distractions, including notebooks and phones.
“In school, a lot of time we are sitting and getting,” she told them. “This gives us an opportunity to speak and be heard.”
Students passed a blue-and-green squishy ball of the Earth around the circle: They could talk when holding the ball, or pass if they didn’t have anything to say. The conversation focused on motivation and homework. Afterwards, some students said they liked getting a chance to know one another.
Daphne McKay, who retired at the end of the year as a restorative justice coach at Kingsview, said the circles give students space to process experiences and create a sense of belonging.
“The more people we have in our lives supporting us, the better,” she said. “Restorative justice is all about sitting down and hearing one another’s perspectives and trying to find a way to come together and understand one another.”
Marcia Cole, a parent in nearby Rockville, said more families need to hear how restorative practices can benefit their children. The process helped her third grade son, who wasn’t getting along on the playground with a new boy at school, she said. The tension was becoming disruptive until the restorative justice specialist stepped in and invited the two to talk it out. They have since bonded over a shared love of Pokémon cards.
The restorative specialist “was able to hear both sides of the story and ask kids questions in a way they could truly process the situation,” Cole said.
As the district prepares for a new school year, it plans to continue sharing data with school leaders to help embed the approach in everyday interactions throughout the school.
“I’m really proud of where we’ve come in getting the work started for a district of this scope and size,” said Jorandby, the district restorative justice administrator. She also noted that early data shows that students who go through a restorative justice program are less likely to engage in misbehavior at school, such as fighting.
She said it’s difficult to quantify the conflicts that were avoided thanks to the 1,900 calls that restorative justice specialists have responded to in the district.
“Often, we see horrible things that are reported that have happened to our children or happened within our district — and we don’t know all of the ones that didn’t,” Jorandby said.
This story about restorative justice in the classroom was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.