7. Democratize Schools

As restorative justice seeks to build collective care and healing, it calls for the meaningful engagement and leadership of everyone in the community. But the deeply democratic approach of restorative justice pushes up against the clear hierarchy most of us have experienced in schools, where teachers hold power over students, school administrators hold power over staff, and bureaucrats and policymakers hold distant power over it all. Students’ families are too often left on the outside looking in, and our neighbors are rarely thought of at all. For restorative justice to thrive, we need to radically rethink power dynamics in schools.


Participants described an urgent need for students to have greater self-determination in schools and beyond, including genuine decision-making power and leadership roles. Students pointed to a culture of ageism that made them feel dismissed, as River explained, “We live in a society where we think that someone older is in the right, always… Breaking that sort of stereotype and barrier is definitely one of the first steps in building a movement.” Youth leaders sometimes felt sidelined in restorative justice efforts, as administrators responded to conflict without seeking their input, or teachers disregarded student-crafted circle outlines for advisory discussions. Giving students more respect and power was seen by youth and adults as one of the biggest changes needed to make restorative justice stronger in our schools. 

We also heard about the specific challenge of teachers—even those theoretically on board with restorative justice—having a hard time letting go of their authority when in personal conflicts with students, and emotions are running high. Leon told us, “When it comes down to them feeling disrespected by a student… they feel actually disempowered by restorative justice. There’s teachers who are feeling like the admin is always on the kid’s side, and I find myself like, are we not all on the kid’s side here?” Participants told us about some of the ways they were starting to disrupt the staff-student hierarchy, with student-staff pairs facilitating restorative responses to student-teacher conflicts, students providing restorative justice training for adults, and staff-only spaces to reflect on and unpack personal ideas about discipline and punishment.

Leon also reminds us that the work of empowering students is wrapped up in administrators supporting staff, and in the creation of deep cultures of respect for everyone in the school community; when staff feel supported, they have more capacity to support students. We heard about the consequences when that doesn’t happen, with a few staff participants talking about the personally painful, destabilizing experience of school leadership changing, with new principals who did not support the school culture and restorative justice work they had built over years. The fact that a single person can cause such a huge disruption highlights the need for power to be more widely distributed throughout the community, in order to make restorative school cultures more resilient in the face of change.

As Becky put it, we should be “giving communities more say in their schools, rather than having only a few people in charge of all schools.” This means involving students, their families, and school staff, alike in shaping their own lives and their communities. When people feel connected, respected, and empowered to, we strengthen our collective capacity to build safety and respond to harm when it occurs.

Listen to Community Voices

Hear from students, parents, and educators about why it’s so necessary to democratize schools, as we build restorative school cultures.

Work through Contradictions

Vent Diagrams help us reflect on the challenges, complexities, and contradictions of doing this work, and figure out how we can keep moving forward. Here is one of the big tensions we heard from participants about restorative justice and power dynamics in schools.

left half of vent diagram, which is a venn diagram with nothing in the center, showing the tension between the two texts right half of vent diagram

Schools are hierarchical

Restorative justice is democratic

Talk with Your Community

What does this look like for you and the people in your life? Use the prompts below to explore ideas about democratizing schools, with others in your school and communities, laying the groundwork for community understanding and making change. (Check out the Community Conversations Toolkit for downloadable guides for facilitating discussions about this project.)

Make It Happen

The young people, educators, and parents we spoke with shared incredible examples of how they are trying to shift power dynamics in their schools, as well as visions of the world we must keep fighting for…. This is what restorative justice looks like, when it’s On Our Terms.

Build School Practice.

Here are specific ideas about how school communities can shift power dynamics, and try to build more democratic school cultures.

  • Create opportunities for staff and students to jointly plan and facilitate intergenerational community building circles (e.g., on community norms and agreements), co-facilitate responses to staff-student conflict, and provide training on restorative justice to youth and adult members of the student community.
  • Ensure that teaching staff and administrators actively participate in circles alongside students, breaking hierarchical norms within the community and helping institute circles as a community-wide, democratic practice.
  • Host regular town halls or other meetings for administration to listen to needs, concerns, and ideas of staff. When administration is able to hold the needs of their staff, it increases the capacity of staff to hold the needs of their students.
  • Involve young people and their families at every decision making space that impacts their experiences in the school community, such as the school leadership team, school safety meetings, grade team meetings, restorative justice action team meetings.
  • Check out Let Youth Lead [LINK] and Build with Families & Neighbors [LINK] for more ideas about how to give students and families a bigger say in their school communities.

Lou T. (she/her), school staff: A student and staff pair of mediators would mediate student-staff conflicts, which were far more common in our school than student-student conflicts, partially because we’re a transfer school (with unique schedules)… And so there literally is just less opportunity for young people to have conflicts with one another, but there are plenty of opportunities to have conflicts with staff and with mentors… And so the student/staff mediation pairs mediating conflicts between staff and students felt really successful and effective and in the end, both the mediators themselves felt positive outcomes, and so did the folks who were in conflict.

Demand Policy Change.

Here are some key policies needed to help build more democratic schools.

  • Create citywide youth leadership positions to inform restorative justice and other school policies, with decision making power and/or voting rights.
  • Fund and support current student and staff practitioners in schools to lead the city’s restorative justice education efforts, rather than solely relying on outside trainers.
  • Ensure that administrators, staff, and students have citywide have opportunities to co-develop and reflect together on the growth of restorative and healing-centered practices.