8. Let Youth Lead

Student-led restorative justice work was described by youth and adults as uniquely effective in transforming conflict, growing youth leadership, and building community buy-in—with broad agreement that we need much more of this. We heard many amazing examples of youth leading restorative justice via community-building circles and town halls, response to harm processes (circles, mediations), training youth and adults in restorative justice, and more. Participants also shared many examples of youth taking initiative to restoratively address personal conflicts with friends and family, and harm in the school community. These moments of organic youth leadership were seen as the best indication that restorative justice was ‘working,’ with a transformational impact for young people and their communities, within and beyond the school walls. Critically, youth-led restorative justice was seen as having ripple effects, building trust and buy-in with other students that was not always possible with adult-led restorative work.


At the same time, staff, students, and parents spoke about the critical role of adult support for youth taking on leadership roles, including providing training and being readily available if students want guidance. A. Geis spoke about wanting to learn from teachers’ experience and collaborate in restorative justice: “work together, share perspectives, share ideas, and then come to a conclusion.” Meaningful youth leadership in restorative justice demands that adults strike a careful balance of providing support and stepping back, guarding against tokenistic or superficial student involvement (see Democratize Schools for more.)

Youth and adult participants also spoke about creating broad cultures of respect for student views and their role in shaping school communities; as Honey put it, “uplift, amplify, and listen to those voices.” This must include young people whose needs have not been met by school, including students who have been impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline. Greater youth input and decision-making throughout school life was seen as enhancing student feelings of safety and agency. For example, we heard about the success of students developing community norms, or co-creating school policies with staff to address emerging issues, like cell phone use in school. Mike W. reflected on the noticeable shift when he and other student leaders took over hosting town halls from the adults, with “the students telling the teachers what they need, which was very… different compared to [earlier town halls] when it would just be the teachers talking our ears off.”

Restorative and democratic approaches should also be embedded in academics; as CV put it, “Students should have a bigger voice when it comes to their education.” We heard about several practical approaches for making this happen, with staff, students, and parents emphasizing student-led curricula and project-based learning. Goldie H. reflected on how project-based learning impacted her children: “Not only are they learning, but they feel proud of what they’re learning… they talk about what they have to do and they’re motivated to do it.” Others spoke about peer mentorship for academic issues, student feedback on teacher performance, and freedom for students to focus on social justice issues in their coursework.

Listen to Community Voices

Hear from students, parents, and educators about why it’s so important to let youth lead, 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 about growing youth leadership in school communities.

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

Youth want adults to trust them & step back

Youth want adult support & mentorship

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 youth leadership 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 youth are already leading the way 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 grow student leadership.

  • Integrate peer mentorship within the school culture generally and restorative justice specifically, with young people sharing skills, knowledge, and support with other young people (i.e. Peer Group Connection model of older students supporting younger students as they transition into high school).
  • Support all students in learning to facilitate community building circles as a routine part of school culture (e.g., in advisory, or classroom discussions), growing leadership skills and relationships among students.
  • Train interested students to facilitate restorative circles and provide other forms of support in response to harm, expanding capacity to respond to harm within schools, as well as fostering youth leadership in restorative justice beyond the school community. Some schools have structured these efforts as an elective class or internship.
  • Support and compensate staff in facilitating youth leadership development, via advisory or other classes, rather than as responsibilities tacked on to their teaching positions.

April A. (she/her), school staff: I’m an advisor of… an elective for our 12th graders at our school where they facilitate activities with 9th graders once per week. And so we consider this a huge tier one program for our school…. But last year was the first year of [12th grade student leaders who also took the class] when they were 9th graders… That whole year… was, for me, the reflection of our restorative and transformative justice practices really coming to fruition. Because these students were referring to what it was like when they were 9th graders, how important it was to them to have someone like a 12th grader or an upperclassman or just someone who’s on their level, who is practicing these things and these values of restorative and transformative justice. And I see that again starting this year.

Demand Policy Change.

Here are some key policies needed to better support youth leadership in our schools.

  • Compensate youth-led restorative justice in schools, via stipends and/or credit-bearing internships.
  • Fund and prioritize youth-led restorative justice training and support for other young people (ie: Student Success Center Model), and create opportunities for youth input in training for adults, with compensation via stipends or credit-bearing internships.
  • Create citywide youth leadership positions to inform restorative justice and other school policies, with decision-making power and/or voting rights.