How schools are using restorative justice to remedy racial disparities in discipline

Too many schools today are pushing children into pipelines of incarceration and violence instead of liberation

Published April 21, 2019 11:00AM (EDT)


Excerpted with permission from “The Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice: Black Lives, Healing, and US Social Transformation” by Fania E. Davis. Copyright 2019 by Good Books, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Named a “New Civil Rights Leader of the 21st Century” by the Los Angeles Times and the founding director of Restorative Justice of Oakland Youth (RJOY), Fania E. Davis is a long-time social justice activist, civil rights trial attorney, restorative justice practitioner, and writer and scholar with a PhD in indigenous knowledge. In "The Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice," Davis examines the still-pervasive, centuries-long cycles of racial prejudice and trauma in America and their repercussions, ranging from educational inequities to mass incarceration. To inspire a positive action toward change, she highlights real restorative justice initiatives that seek to address these issues in schools, justice systems, and communities. This newest addition to the Justice and Peacebuilding series is a much needed and long overdue examination of the issue of race in America as well as a beacon of hope as we learn to work together to repair damage, change perspectives, and strive to do better.

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Education as a Liberatory Practice

From slavery times to the present, black people have treasured education as liberatory. It was unlawful for enslaved blacks to learn to read and write. When the slavemaster learned his wife was teaching young Frederick Douglass to read, he at once forbade it: “[I]f you teach . . . [him] how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Upon hearing these words, Douglass had an epiphany, understanding in that moment that education was “the path way from slavery to freedom” and was the most important thing he and other slaves could do to free themselves. Douglass went on to become a leader in the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements, a best-selling author, and a US diplomat.

Author and educator bell hooks continues this black tradition, exhorting educators to enact a revolutionary pedagogy of resistance that is profoundly anticolonial and anti-racist. This is education as the practice of freedom, as famed critical pedagogist Paulo Friere puts it, and it means implementing practices that both challenge curricular and pedagogical biases that reinforce systems of domination like racism and sexism while simultaneously creating innovative ways to teach diverse groups of students. Instead of creating pathways to liberation and opportunity, however, too many schools today are pushing children into pipelines of incarceration and violence.

Restorative Justice in Schools

There are growing numbers of studies establishing the effectiveness of school-based restorative justice in reducing suspensions, expulsions, and police referrals, while improving academic outcomes and decreasing violence. For instance, according to a 2015 implementation study of whole-school restorative justice in Oakland that compared schools with restorative justice to schools without, from 2011 to 2014, graduation rates in restorative schools increased by 60 percent compared to a 7 percent increase in nonrestorative schools; reading scores increased 128 percent versus 11 percent; and the dropout rate decreased 56 percent versus 17 percent. Harm was repaired in 76 percent of conflict circles, with students learning to talk instead of fight through differences at home and at school, and more than 88 percent of teachers said that restorative practices were very or somewhat helpful in managing difficult student behaviors.

Even without the research gold standard of double-blind randomized controlled trials, school-based restorative justice is considered a promising practice, with virtually all states in the nation having adopted it in some form. Very few studies, however, focus on the potential of restorative justice to reduce racial disparities in school discipline. Oakland, California, and Denver, Colorado, are leading the way.

Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY; Oakland, CA)

Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), a national thought leader in practicing restorative justice in ways that emphasize its intersections with racial justice and honor its indigenous ethos, launched California’s first urban school-based restorative justice pilot at an Oakland middle school in 2006. The pilot used restorative conversations and circles proactively to create a culture of connectivity and responsively provide an alternative to exclusionary school discipline. Suspension rates plummeted by 87 percent during the first two years, violence and teacher attrition were eradicated, and academic outcomes increased. By 2010, with youth organizing and RJOY’s advocacy and assistance, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) adopted restorative justice as official policy and committed significant staff and financial resources to fund these efforts.

Now, nearly forty OUSD restorative schools implement a wide range of restorative practices that both proactively strengthen community and responsively repair harm. These practices include restorative conversations, conferencing and circles, mediation, and a strong student-led component. Restorative practices are also often co-implemented with other school climate strategies such as Positive Behavioral Intervention Systems and initiatives coming out of the Offices of Equity and African American Male Achievement. From 2012 to 2017, overall suspension rates in OUSD dropped by nearly 55 percent, from 7.4 percent to 3.3 percent. Though disparities remain, the black/white discipline gap narrowed from 12.1 percent to 6.4 percent, or a 47 percent decrease. The Latino/white gap narrowed from 3.4 percent to 1.4 percent, a 59 percent gap reduction.

Notably, an important motivation to adopt restorative justice district-wide as official policy, as stated in the 2010 school board resolution, was the legal imperative to address racial disparity in school discipline. The US Department of Education launched an investigation against the Oakland school district for civil rights violations in school discipline; and, as part of the settlement agreement, the district agreed, among other things, to use restorative justice to reduce the disparate rate of arresting, suspending, and expelling black students compared to their white counterparts.

Padres & Jóvenes Unidos/Denver Public Schools (Denver, CO)

In 1992, parents conducted a yearlong protest of a Denver grade school where mischievous Spanish-speaking kids were forced to sit on the floor in a corner at lunch, while mischievous English-speaking kids sat at a special table. The parents requested an apology for the discrimination, and though they never received it, the principal was eventually fired. This parent protest marked the beginning of a group that in 2000 came to be known as Padres & Jóvenes Unidos. By 2006, the group spurred a collaboration with Denver Public Schools (DPS) and the teachers’ union to launch a restorative justice pilot program at four schools to address racial disparities in disciplinary practices. The success of the pilot, coupled with continued organizing, led DPS administrators in 2009 to adopt restorative justice as official school discipline policy and expand restorative justice practices to additional schools. With this expansion, DPS shifted restorative justice from an isolated program in individual schools to a district-wide philosophical and values-based approach and practice. Between 2006 and 2013, the DPS overall suspension rate dropped from 10.58 percent to 5.63 percent, a decline of nearly 47 percent. The suspension rate for African Americans fell 7 percent and for Latinos, approximately 6 percent. Though the discipline gap between African Americans and their white counterparts persists, the gap narrowed from a twelve-point gap in 2006 to just over an eight-point gap in 2013, a reduction of 33 percent. In 2016, Padres & Jóvenes Unidos gave DPS an overall grade of C+ for its efforts to improve the disciplinary process and end the school-to-prison pipeline. Their Community Accountability Report Card shows DPS is making progress, but not enough, in eliminating racial disparities in school discipline.

Tips for Reducing Racial Disparities in School Discipline

The following vignette offers insight into suggestions for ways to reduce school discipline racial disparities. An Oakland-based restorative justice consultant attended a meeting of school administrators in a nearby large school district located in a mostly upscale white county with pockets of high-poverty schools in communities of color. Historically, these schools had high levels of exclusionary discipline coupled with large racial disparities. Three administrators, tasked with drafting plans to address these issues, read their plans aloud. Whether proposing interventions such as mental health services, peer mediation, character development, or conflict-resolution programs, each plan focused on student behavioral deficits. Colleagues gave positive feedback, but the restorative justice consultant remained silent. When asked his opinion, he responded with a question: “Who makes the decisions that result in high levels of racially disproportionate suspensions, expulsions, and arrests?” After a long silence, one administrator finally admitted, “We do.” Nodding, the consultant then asked, “And what systemic factors are involved?” “Punitive discipline policy, school segregation, school financing, and teaching quality are some.” He replied that while the proposals to alter student behavior might help, little will change without additional interventions addressing implicit bias and student-teacher relationships as well as district efforts to alter policies and the larger institutional context that maintains racialized hierarchies.

I offer three specific strategies to implement restorative justice in schools in a way that will reduce racial disparities.

1. Simultaneously Address Relationships, Institutional Racism, and Implicit Bias

Too often we locate responsibility for school discipline issues and racial disparities in the children and their perceived cognitive or developmental deficits, stopping there, as did the school administrators in the vignette above. This is not surprising—we are socialized to view the world through a lens that centers on the individual. Though this behavioral and psychological approach may be well-meaning, it is shortsighted. Strategies to create equal educational opportunity in our schools require much more, including rigorous and ongoing professional development for all staff in restorative justice. There is some evidence that teachers who implement restorative justice with high fidelity will be perceived as more respectful of students of all racial groups, will have more positive relationships with all students, and will therefore be less likely to rely on punitive school discipline approaches than low-restorative-justice-implementing practitioners. The inference is that implicit bias will be reduced if teacher-student classroom relationships are of better quality. Relational strategies that are race-neutral, however, are not likely to reduce school discipline disparities. Holistic relational strategies that simultaneously interrogate the bias and systemic factors that historically maintain racial hierarchies in education will likely be more productive.

Two restorative justice practitioners with a consulting firm in Northern California decided that, based on the ubiquitous, insidious, and harmful nature of bias in our culture, they would not offer restorative justice trainings to cities, districts, and schools without first requiring them to undergo an equity training, at least three hours in duration. The restorative justice training that follows then weaves in and applies what has been learned from the equity training. This proved to be a tough decision to live with; school administrators and potential clients question why they and their schools need it, vehemently insisting on the restorative justice training only. But the firm remains resolute.

Restorative justice trainers working in schools—and in other applications—would do well to adopt a similar stance. All adults at a school site, including those in the chain of decision making that leads to racially disparate outcomes, do not only need quality restorative justice training, coaching, and mentoring. They also need rigorous and continuing equity training to develop a more nuanced awareness of structural and institutional racism, learn how they personally reproduce structural inequalities through individual bias, and explore strategies to unlearn it. In other words, we need adults at schools and throughout districts to be high implementers of both restorative justice and racial justice.

Confronting one’s own bias is a fraught subject, and it is important that the design and facilitation of implicit bias trainings address the tendency of white educators to feel they stand accused of racism, triggering defensiveness and shutdown. Effective trainings allow participants to be open about acknowledging, exploring, and ultimately unlearning their own bias. White restorative justice practitioners in Oakland and elsewhere are designing whiteness trainings using restorative justice principles to create affinity spaces where persons can unearth and explore their own biases amongst themselves with trained facilitators. In restorative affinity spaces, white participants are less likely to feel shamed and humiliated, and the burden to teach or comfort does not fall upon people of color.

Ricardo Martinez, codirector of Denver-based Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said words to the effect that we need to press not so much for changes in student behavior, but for changes in adult behaviors. The point is well-taken: it is misguided to propose only youth-focused strategies to rectify racial disparities; we also need interventions that focus on adult behaviors, especially those influenced by implicit bias. I would add we also need interventions that transform systems and policies that perpetuate racialized hierarchies in educational institutions.

2. Develop District-Community Collaborations

Systems interventions create the opportunity for educators and school-based restorative justice practitioners to collaborate with community-based groups, like Padres & Jóvenes Unidos and Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. These collaborations not only enrich classroom curricula about culture and history and launch restorative justice pilot programs, but also press for public policy changes in support of a racial justice–conscious restorative justice and related strategies. Systems interventions might also involve allying with youth and community activists to press for local, state, and federal legislation to transform segregated schools, inequitable teacher quality, and school financing patterns, as well as to fund equity and restorative justice training, coaching, and implementation.

3. Develop District-University Partnerships

Another effective strategy to transform zero tolerance and interrupt the racialized school-to-prison pipeline is to enter into partnerships with area universities to develop and monitor data and conduct rigorous research on school discipline and racial disparities. A good example is the researcher-practitioner partnership between the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work and the Office of Social-Emotional Learning at Denver Public Schools. The partners work closely together, regularly meeting over the course of the school year both to track race-related school discipline data as well as develop specific trainings, coaching, and relational interventions to reduce exclusionary discipline and narrow racial disparities. They also monitor the impact of these interventions, continually modifying them to improve efficacy. Additional goals of the partnership are to use research to inform local policy, programs, and practices and to work with policy makers and practitioners to identify and implement effective prevention and intervention strategies.


Being a warrior and healer in the context of school-based restorative justice practice means practicing with heightened and active awareness of our own bias, implicit or explicit, and of systemic factors in our schools that perpetuate harm. A few of the many such factors include financing disparities for schools in communities of color, tracking and special education placements, the school-to-prison pipeline, and racial disparities in discipline. It also means creating school cultures of care, connectivity, and healing.

By Fania E. Davis

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