Moving Toward a Restorative Justice Approach in the Schools


  restorative-practicesAt the school candidate’s forum last week, when the issue came to climate issues and promoting health and well-being for the LGBT community, Bob Poppenga stated that the school district really needs to focus on restorative justice programs, which he says “have shown great promise in terms of improving relationships among students and seeing different things from different perspectives.”

Chuck Rairdan followed up, noting, “There should be a step-wise approach along the lines of the restorative justice.” He said there should be counseling and a combination of restorative justice.

The district has taken some approaches toward restorative justice, including the newly-implemented conflict resolution process that aims to avoid a repeat of the volleyball scandal from February and March of this year.

But this is not the limit of that approach.

In February 2013, the Vanguard did a story on the efforts of now former Davis High Vice Principal Sheila Smith, who had been slowly implementing restorative justice principles whenever possible into peacemaking situations – anytime a conflict arises, whether it is between two students, between a student and a teacher, or even other situations as well.

We learned this last week that Da Vinci has now received a grant of $38,000 to fund a restorative justice initiative that would train all 30 staff members and students in conflict management, through mediation rather than discipline.

A report from the UC Berkeley School of Law, Henderson Center for Social Justice, examined a pilot program at a middle school in Oakland. They write, “Restorative justice is an alternative to retributive zero-tolerance policies that mandate suspension or expulsion of students from school for a wide variety of misbehaviors including possession of alcohol or cigarettes, fighting, dress code violations, and curs­ing. Although zero-tolerance policies have resulted in substantial increases in student suspensions and expulsions for students of all races, African Ameri­can and Hispanic/Latino youth are dispropor­tionately impacted by a zero-tolerance approach.”

Proponents of restorative justice approaches, they write that they “have begun to promote school-based restorative justice as an alternative to zero-tolerance policies. Restor­ative justice is a set of principles and practices grounded in the values of showing respect, taking responsibility, and strengthening relationships. When harm occurs, restorative justice focuses on repair of harm and prevention of re-occurrence.”

When the Vanguard met with Sheila Smith at Davis High School, she described a recent situation that saw two students about to fight over a desk in school.  As the tension increased, one of the students pushed the desk to the floor in the middle of class.  They were about to fight when the teacher interceded and sent them to talk to Ms. Smith.

Ms. Smith, with the input of others, has developed protocol that helps to lay out the standard of practice.  In this case, the two sides sat down and talked about what happened.  One of the parties agreed to be more thoughtful in the manner of dealing with the other student.

The other student agreed that he had overreacted to a situation in which a chair was being used by a third student, a female.  They talked to the female that sat in the other chair and she agreed to be more cognizant about where she sat.

The result of this process, Ms. Smith reported, is that the situation has vastly improved.  The two students actually began to develop a relationship, where previously they had none.  There is relief that they got to work out their differences and that this did not have to result in further discipline.

Sheila Smith made it clear that this is not a way to avoid discipline nor does she consider it a “soft” approach.  However, at the same time, she believes that only relying on punitive measures often exacerbates the problem.

At the same time, this does not negate punitive measures, as they have to honor both the district’s progressive discipline code and the education code.


The Vanguard also met with Ron and Roxanne Claassen, authors of Discipline that Restores, which they wrote based on principles developed jointly to apply restorative justice principles in a school setting.

“What we found is that, when people start to look at and hear about the concept of restorative justice as opposed to simply punitive justice, all have had experience with the fact that punitive doesn’t work very well,” Mr. Claassen said.  “So the idea that there are some real live options is exciting.  Even some people who have been most opposed at some point often turn out to be some of the strongest advocates.”

Mr. Claassen said that he had already founded the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies when his wife, an eighth grade teacher, came home and said the structure of discipline in the schools is very similar to the structure of the criminal justice system.

Mr. Claassen is the Director of the Restorative Discipline Project and Professor of Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, Fresno Pacific School of Education. He has served as a teacher, pastor, consultant, trainer and mediator in church, business, school, criminal justice and other settings. He is co-founder of the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, as noted above, and founder of Fresno VORP (Victim Offender Reconciliation Program).

Restorative justice in the classroom, he said, does not mean that things are let go or that chaos is allowed to rule.  It begins with the concept that whatever response there is going to be to misbehavior is going to be a constructive response.

“What we’ve been working at is developing a series of options so that,” he said, if one approach does not work, they have alternatives.  “It is all to work in the direction of the student accepting personal responsibility for what they’ve been doing and thinking about how they want to move forward.”

“When there has been an infraction it can be a process for how you repair that infraction,” he said.

This includes three basic concepts: recognizing what happened, not necessarily always agreeing, and at least giving the other person the chance to share their perception of what happened.

Once this exchange takes place, they look toward a resolution of the restoration of equity and clarifying how you would move forward in the future.

Equity would be a mutually agreed upon way of addressing what has happened – it might be through deeds, perhaps monetary restitution, or an apology.

“A lot of the restorative equity happens in the process of a person actually being willing to, first of all, just acknowledge how the person experienced it,” he said.

There also have to be agreements as to what they are going to do in the future.

“People who are extremely upset at each other walk away at the end of it saying, okay we’ve taken care of this.”

The Enterprise quoted Yolo County Superior Court Judge Kathleen White on the grant that Da Vinci received.

“The foundation looks for game-changers, programs at the leading edge or that serve an otherwise unrecognized need,” Judge White said. “The restorative justice initiative offers a paradigm shift in the approach to conflicts in school communities, one which may ultimately reduce expulsions, suspensions and even violence. It’s a scalable program that can be implemented anywhere. We are pleased to support it.”

The principle at Da Vinci High, Troy Allen, seems supportive of the program, noting, “The introduction of restorative practices will mark a shift away from the traditional punitive school behavior policies and toward a model focused on proactively building relationships,” Allen said, with the aim being to prevent wrongdoing while holding those that cause harm accountable for repairing relationships and “righting the wrong.””

This represents a critical move forward for DJUSD and hopefully, if successful, the grant program will be just the start.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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8 thoughts on “Moving Toward a Restorative Justice Approach in the Schools”

  1. South of Davis

    It will be tough to get “restorative justice” in the schools (even though it is good for kids) since just like unpaid volunteers in the schools (that are good for kids) reduces the growth of (dues paying) union teaching jobs restorative justice reduces the growth in (dues paying) union jobs of cops who run metal detectors, police schools, and take kids to jail “and” also reduces the growth in (dues paying) union jobs in the juvenile justice system and reduces the chance that the “kids” will end up getting transferred to the adult jail system where the highly paid union members give more campaign cash to elected officials in CA than any other group (so they get paid even more and almost never get punished for the thousands per month they make smuggling contraband to people behind bars)…

  2. South of Davis

    I wonder if a school with “restorative justice” would give a kid detention for sharing food:

    “Kyle Bradford of Weaverville Elementary in California shared his school-bought lunch with a friend because the other kid wasn’t crazy about his own cheese sandwich. That’s a no-no in the eyes of school officials worried about allergies and lawsuits. ”

  3. KSmith

    I would really like to see the restorative approach implemented in schools more. It seems to be the difference between the teachers and administration regarding all students as potential troublemakers, and regarding them as important members of a cooperative enterprise.

    I saw both sides of this when my daughter was at Da Vinci Jr. High. In my experience and from what I personally observed, there was a vast difference between how the Emerson administration treated students (as potential troublemakers) and how the Da Vinci administration did so. Heck, a few times the Emerson admin even gave me the third degree when I was there to take my daughter out of school for a public musical performance. The attitude appeared to be that the admin thought I was taking her out for a frivolous reason.

    The 2009 documentary “The War on Kids” is relevant to this issue (and I think still available on Netflix). It suggests that schools are increasingly taking on a punitive/prison type atmosphere, which has been exacerbated by the increasing rates of diagnoses such as ADD, ADHD and ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder). So, basically a wide range of normal “kid” behaviors are now being pathologized and/or criminalized.

    It’s an interesting documentary and well worth watching if you’re passionate about this issue.

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