3. Prioritize Racial Justice

Anti-racist approaches must be integrated into all aspects of school culture and restorative justice practices, not as a one-off conversations or training. If not, the impact of restorative justice will be limited and may cause further harm to school communities and specifically youth who identify as BIPoC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color).


Restorative justice has its roots within Indigenous practices, but teaching about the past and present of Indigenous peoples remains limited in most classrooms—even as restorative justice has become an education ‘buzzword.” There are similar absences in education about systemic oppression and harms that people have been subjected to on the basis of social identities. These silences limit our ability to confront the present with honesty and neglect student needs. Racial, familial, and generational histories of oppression impact how young people show up in the world; if we ignore them, it can prevent us from even speaking about certain forms of harmand from accessing healing. Restorative justice demands that we reckon with interconnected forms of oppression and inequity, and how they show up in interpersonal conflict and harm.

In our focus groups, there was a specific, pressing call for restorative justice to more meaningfully engage with the ways that racism shows up in our lives, schools, and broader society. Many students and staff spoke about the institutional racism and criminalizing force of School Safety Agents and metal detectors in schools–a daily reminder of racist stereotypes, policing, and surveillance of BIPoC youth in and out of schools.

Students, staff, and parents also described numerous instances of racist harm, as well as harmful expressions of misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and classism by youth and adults alike. Adding to the hurt, several participants spoke about times when they felt like racist harm in school was not responded to with enough care or depth, often causing another layer of harm for BIPoC students. Nova explained her experience of a community rebuilding circle after a student used racist language: “[The staff] didn’t really know how to handle something so severe in a restorative justice way… Nobody really got to say anything and nobody really got healed.” Some students pointed to majority-white staff as contributing to this issue, naming discomfort or uncertainty about how to talk about race and racism.

A few participants spoke more generally about the “unacknowledged bias” of white staff. Lou explained, “It’s not just the bias itself, it’s the additional layer of actively not wanting to see it and wanting to push it away… [it] took up a lot of time and energy and my own doubt and frustration and anger.” Some students and parents described similar dynamics in their (self-described) racially and economically diverse schools, sensing that white parents and white and/or wealthy students were reluctant to talk about racism and other social justice issues. For instance, Arcadia described quiet pushback on discussions of racism from “very well-meaning white parents, who only want the best for the school—but as long as it just stays the same.” 

There was far more emphasis on the specific challenges of white educators teaching majority students of color, but BIPoC staff were not seen as immune to reinforcing oppressive ideologies in schools. Lily described her experience that some BIPoC staff feel the need to be tough on students because “the world’s not going to cut some slack,” behavior which she viewed as “maladaptive” and “limiting,” rather than helpful. In growing anti-oppression dialogue in schools, it is crucial for staff and students to reflect on this tension of preparing BIPoC youth for the world that exists, versus preparing them for the world they want to build.

Importantly, participants were clear that these blatant and subtle experiences of harm were not just the result of a few specific people, but represented a continuation of much broader dynamics of systemic racism and oppression. And, critically, they pointed to the need for individual, community, and institutional change in order to address these issues.

With this backdrop, youth, staff, and parents expressed a desire for proactively affirming school cultures for BIPoC students, and students of historically marginalized identities, with curriculum and classroom staff that better reflect the diversity of NYC students. Participants pointed to various ways to build anti-racist school cultures, including widely accessible anti-racist trainings, culturally-sustaining curriculum, hiring more BIPoC classroom staff, collective learning about the school-to-prison pipeline, and youth leadership in community-wide discussions and responses to harm related to racism and oppression.

Listen to Community Voices

Hear from students, parents, and educators about the importance of prioritizing racial justice, 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 prioritizing racial justice in restorative justice practice 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

Restorative justice without anti-racism can cause more harm

Schools need greater capacity for addressing racism

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 race and racial justice 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 prioritizing racial justice 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 prioritize racial justice.

  • Provide in-house training and reflection space that accents larger anti-racism and anti-oppression training, to ensure that the conversation of anti-oppression is not a one-time training, but an ongoing dialogue. Restorative justice staff and administrators should receive additional, intensive training about using restorative justice to address racist or other identity-based harm in schools.
  • Prioritize hiring BIPoC and multilingual staff at every level of the school community, including administration, teaching staff, and support roles such as social workers, restorative justice coordinators, and guidance counselors.
  • Implement culturally-sustaining curricula, with young people involved in the planning and teaching of lessons that reflect them and their experiences.
  • Use community-building spaces (e.g., advisory, staff meeting) to process experiences of racism and other forms of oppression, and to help increase student and staff comfort in having these community conversations.
  • Create student-directed opportunities to learn about systems of oppression (racism, misogyny, colonialism, etc.) and social justice issues that matter to students, including open conversations about their impacts alongside imagining what possibilities the future can hold if we address them. This may include student-led community building circles or town halls on these topics.

Love M. (she/her), school staff: We’ve been doing RJ for like 10 years, but kind of hodgepodge and it’s messy work, so it was all over the place. When we became [involved with a racial equity initiative] and we started looking at numbers and data of suspension and the racism that’s actually in schools, and who’s getting suspended and all of these things in our [monthly program] workshops… We’d had the ability to look at texts and talk about racism in school and how this definitely supports what we want to do as a restorative justice school… Even students are having a conversation about prejudice and racism and discrimination and the disproportionality in our school… We have this conversation with kids openly… because children also need to understand why this work is necessary…. More teachers started asking for circles… Circles to address harm when it happened in their classroom… And I think that was in correlation to the data that was coming out of the DOE around our school, and what happens in schools around race and racism. So I think teachers wanted to make an additional effort. Teachers were coming to ask about their lesson plans, like is this culturally responsive? So everyone was now on alert, like these things are happening. We’re not just talking about them. We want them implemented in our school. Here are some key policies needed to better support our schools in prioritizing racial justice.

Demand Policy Change.

  • Increase recruitment and expand access to employment opportunities for BIPoC applicants across all DOE jobs—from admin to paraprofessionals, educators to social workers, RJ coordinators to community safety workers—with the ultimate goal of smaller class sizes and New York City schools that better reflect the diversity of our students and their communities.
  • Mandate anti-racism training for all DOE staff, and make it widely accessible to students and parents. Restorative justice staff and administrators should receive additional, intensive training about using restorative justice to address racist or other identity-based harm in schools.
  • Ensure that city-wide restorative justice training efforts build upon and integrate other staff training on anti-oppression frameworks, trauma-informed pedagogy, and culturally-sustaining curriculum—all of which enhance the capacity of staff and schools to understand and address student needs, and respond to interpersonal and institutional harm in schools.