In New York City and across the country, organizers and advocates have demanded an end to the School-to-Prison-Pipeline and investment in restorative justice, and there has been some real progress over the past several years. As this movement gains steam, we want to make sure that it isn’t watered down. School communities who have long been leading restorative justice work must have a real say in what restorative justice looks like in schools; they know that restorative justice is about more than reducing suspensions, but a whole new way of doing school.
Built by an intergenerational group of New York City students, parents, educators, and activists, On Our Terms has been shaped by the wisdom of first-hand experience with restorative justice and activism. Moving beyond buzzwords and platitudes, we spoke with youth, educators, and parents to dig into the messy, challenging, and rewarding experience of restorative justice in schools to paint a clearer picture of what restorative justice can look like, when it’s On Our Terms.
Background and Political Context
After years of relentless organizing, the movement for restorative justice has been gaining momentum in schools and education policy across the country. This represents a departure from a decades-long national trend of schools relying on surveillance, securitization, and “zero-tolerance” suspensions, expulsions–and even arrests–as disciplinary measures. These policies had devastating consequences, with research documenting many harmful outcomes for suspended students: worse academic performance, higher rates of dropout/pushout, and increased likelihood of future involvement with the criminal legal system, contributing to what’s commonly referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline” (STPP). With disproportionately high rates of suspension for Black, Latinx, and Native American students, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, and English Language Learners, these young people shoulder the burden of these harmful approaches to school discipline. At the same time, suspension is not shown to increase safety in the broader school community, decrease student misbehavior, or lead to academic gains for non-suspended students.
It is with this backdrop of advocacy and research that policymakers have increased focus on decreasing school exclusion and promoting non-punitive approaches to school conflict. For instance, the Departments of Education and Justice issued national guidance in 2014 for decreasing school exclusion, increasing approaches like restorative justice, and addressing disparities by race and disability. And in 2015 under Mayor de Blasio, New York City’s Department of Education (NYC DOE) began calling for revising disciplinary codes, decreasing suspension, expanding mental health supports in schools, and increasing restorative justice. In 2019, the NYC DOE announced further efforts to increase funding and access to restorative justice, social supports, and anti-bias training to more New York City schools and educators. While education justice organizers viewed this move as an important victory, they also saw it as just the first of many steps the city could take to deepen its commitment to racial justice and healing in schools.
Many of these policy efforts have included a call to expand restorative justice–a central demand for many education justice activists. With roots in certain Indigenous practices, restorative justice is a relational approach to conflict with the goals of addressing root causes of conflict, repairing harm, and fostering democratic, collective forms of accountability. A limited but growing body of research suggests that restorative justice enhances school climate and student engagement, and decreases fighting, bullying, and suspensions.
Long before its recent rise in popularity, pockets of educators, youth and parent activists, and community organizers were already growing restorative practice in schools—even if not by name, and often at odds with official disciplinary policies. Their push for restorative justice has always been just one part of a broader fight for educational justice and building affirming, supportive, and liberatory spaces of learning for all young people. And notably, the recent policy shifts do not address advocacy demands to divest from police and surveillance measures (metal detectors, cameras) in schools, which are key drivers of the school-to-prison pipeline.
And so, for them, the movement of restorative justice from the margins into formal education policy is both a cause for celebration and anxiety. We see schools simultaneously as a site of historic and ongoing systemic harm against already marginalized young people and an unrelinquished site of liberatory promise, however flawed. For those deeply invested in restorative justice in New York City, there was anxiety about: the conflation of decreasing suspensions and implementing restorative justice (interconnected ideas, but not the same); the watering-down of demands for holistic restorative justice culture change into decontextualized “tools” or one-off trainings; and, the co-optation of restorative justice for punitive purposes; and how the constant need to defend the place of restorative justice in schools can take energy away from our collective capacity to address challenges and sticking points in restorative practice (e.g., power dynamics in schools, ongoing racial disparities) within our communities.
On Our Terms emerges from this moment of tension and possibility. With these questions looming, Restorative Justice Initiative brought together Teachers Unite, the Public Science Project, and The Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York to consider how we might collectively address these anxieties and ensure that New York City youth, educators, and families were at the center of the conversation about restorative justice in schools. Together, we set out to build a critical participatory action research project with deep roots in citywide educational justice organizing and restorative school communities.
This project is our way of taking back the conversation about restorative justice and safety in schools, to ensure that the students, educators, and parents who have been building this work all along are at the center of decision-making about educational policy and practice. What would restorative justice and healing-centered schools look like, if they were On Our Terms?