On Our Terms is a critical participatory action research project built by a diverse group of over 30 New York City youth, school staff, parents, and organizers committed to restorative justice, ending the school-to-prison-pipeline, and fighting for educational justice. Together, we built a research project to understand what it takes to build deeply safe, restorative, and healing-centered school cultures.
Our research included 12 focus groups (and one interview) with youth, parents, and school staff with experience in schools using restorative and transformative justice. Read on to learn more about our research questions, focus groups and who participated, and data analysis.
On Our Terms was founded with two overarching questions:
What does restorative justice look like when it’s deep “in the bones” of the culture of a school, when it’s working the way we dream it could?
How do we get there?
During our Summer Institute, the On Our Terms team collectively drafted a series of related but more specific research aims and questions:
- Defining Safety. How do we build safer, more supportive schools? What does safety mean to school communities using restorative justice?
- Understanding Accountability. What are school communities’ goals in responding to conflict through restorative justice? What does meaningful accountability look like – for individuals, schools, systems?
- Creating Buy-In. How do we build understanding of and trust in restorative justice?
- Working through Challenges. What are the challenges of restorative justice? How do you overcome them?
- Mapping Power in Restorative Justice. Who decides what restorative looks like in schools and across New York City? Who should? How do power dynamics play out in restorative justice processes and who has access to restorative approaches?
These questions informed the design of our data collection, including who participated in the focus groups and the collective work of drafting and revising our interview and focus group questions. It is these very questions that weave throughout our findings, in our themes and recommendations.
Focus Groups: Learning from School Communities
Our research was committed to learning from the expertise and insight of school communities engaged with restorative or transformative justice. To this end, we conducted 12 focus groups including six focus groups with youth, five focus groups with school staff, one focus group with parents, and one parent interview.
We shared a call to participate through the networks of Teachers Unite, Restorative Justice Initiative, and the Dignity-in-Schools Campaign-NY, as central hubs for community members building restorative justice in schools. If someone was interested, they completed a short survey to determine if they fit our criteria for participation:
- Youth, school staff, and parents/caregivers had at least a year of experience with a middle or high school using restorative or transformative justice in New York City.
- Youth were in 7th grade or above, or a recent alum who graduated in 2018 or later.
- Everyone provided their consent to participate and to be audio recorded (and if under 18, also got consent from a parent or caregiver).
All participants self-identified as having experience with restorative or transformative justice in schools, and so participants had a wide range of experience. In some cases, we asked follow-up questions to get further information to determine if someone was a good fit.
The focus group discussions were held on zoom and led by members of the On Our Terms facilitation crew, made up of three youth, three educators, and our two project organizers. Typically facilitated by one young person and one adult, we asked questions and fostered a group discussion about participants’ experiences and opinions about restorative justice, school safety, school culture and climate, and community accountability. These questions were drafted through an iterative and collaborative process that began during the Summer Institute, and continued with the focus group facilitators.
Focus Group Participants
We had 46 people take part in our focus groups, including
- 22 youth, including middle and high students and recent high school alumnae;
- 20 school staff, including classroom teachers, social workers, restorative justice coordinators, and a principal; some people have held more than one of these roles in their careers (or even at one time); and,
- 3 parents, with children in middle and high schools.
With an overwhelming response from youth and school staff, we reached max capacity in those focus groups and we were not able to include everyone who reached out. With parents, on the other hand, we had a very limited response from eligible parents, despite extensive outreach. We believe this due in part to the context of COVID and remote schooling, as well as insufficient capacity within our team to hold focus group discussions in languages other than English. While these discussions we had with these three parents were rich and have much to offer, our insight into parents’ experiences is unfortunately limited.
We believe that people should have the power to define themselves, so we asked participants to respond to optional demographic questions in their own words and provided an open-ended opportunity for participants to share any other aspects of their social identities that they felt were important, such as disability, religion, and migration history. We have included word clouds of participant responses about their demographics in their own words to prioritize the multiplicity of ways that people identify themselves; these word clouds are followed by a brief summary of participant demographics by role.
Race and ethnicity of focus group participants
Gender identity of focus group participants
Sexuality of focus group participants
|Youth Participant Demographics (n=22)⁺|
|Age||13-20 years old; median age is 17 years old|
|Race and ethnicity*||The vast majority of youth identified as BIPoC (n=20), including Black, Latinx, Asian, or having a multi-ethnic and/or multi-racial background; two youth identified as white.|
|Gender identity||Most youth identified as female or cisgender women (n=18); two youth identified as nonbinary or genderfluid, and one identified as male.|
|Sexuality||Youth were pretty evenly divided fairly among those who identified as straight (n=8), LGBTQ+ (n=7), and those that did not respond (n=7).|
|Language||12 young people reported speaking at least one language other than American English at home, including Amharic, Bengali, French, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Soninke, and Wolof-English.|
* Recognizing that people’s racial and ethnic identities are complex and often overlapping, we asked a combined, open-ended question: “What’s your race and/or ethnicity?”
|School Staff Participant Demographics (n=19)⁺|
|Age||25-57 years old, median age is 36 years old|
|Race and ethnicity||More than half of school staff participants identified as white (n=12), with a subset of that group identifying as white and Jewish (n=3). Seven school staff identified as BIPoC, including Black, Latinx, Asian, or having a multi-ethnic and/or multi-racial background.|
|Gender identity||Most staff identified as a cisgender female or woman (n=14); three people identified as gender queer or non-binary, and two identified as a cisgender male or men.|
|Sexuality||Just under half of staff identified as straight or heterosexual (n=9), seven staff identified as LGBTQ+, and four did not respond.|
|Language||Four staff reported speaking at least one language other than English at home, including Spanish, and Spanglish, and Tetun.|
|Parent Participant Demographics (n=3)⁺|
|Age||45-50 years old; median age is 48 years old|
|Race and ethnicity||One parent identified as Latina, one as Biracial/Black, and one as white.|
|Gender identity||All three parents identified as female.|
|Sexuality||Two parents identified as heterosexual, one did not respond.|
|Language||Two parents speak both English and Spanish at home.|
We used the audio recordings of the focus groups to create written transcripts of the discussions. Everyone in the facilitator crew helped with analyzing the transcripts, through a process called “coding,” where we identified common experiences or ideas that came up repeatedly, as well as “outliers” or ideas and experiences that were more unique across participants. We used a collaborative online tool called Annotate.co which made it possible to work independently and collaboratively, as we added our own individual codes and comments and were able to see and respond to the codes and comments of others. We identified the ten themes in this report through a multiple-step iterative process, moving through cycles of independent analysis by Talia and Anooj punctuated by collaborative work with the facilitator crew and members of the broader On Our Terms community. The narrative descriptions of the themes, quotes, vent diagrams, and recommendations for policy and practice that are on this website emerged from this analysis process.