2. Transform Culture

Restorative justice can feel like a radical change for both youth and adults, representing a “fundamental shift in what people believe.” As April explained, it can require a lot of unlearning after “growing up in a system that penalizes you for everything,” including experiences at home, in schools, and in society as a whole. Even when teachers are “rhetorically supportive” of restorative justice, many have a hard time putting it into practice when they feel personally disrespected by a student. We heard about many school-specific barriers to changing the punishment mindset, including rigid staff-student hierarchies, “punitive” academics and testing pressures, and schools’ long histories of institutional harm.


With this backdrop, restorative justice asks us to rethink and transform the way that we relate to each other, in and out of conflict. This shift is not just an absence of suspension, but building the robust presence of an entirely new approach to being in community, responding to harm, and seeking healing. When we asked what made this sort of transformation possible, we heard again and again that relationships are the life force of restorative justice. It is relationships that generate the trust and belonging that makes it possible to be vulnerable, ask for help, admit mistakes, and take accountability.  In turn, relationships help us keep moving through the most difficult parts of culture change, like reflecting on personal beliefs about discipline, building buy-in with community members, and working through challenges. And, critically, this work is most successful when it is a community-wide effort. Participants told us how administrator leadership and support is an important ingredient for restorative school cultures to take root, but it is the broad engagement and drive of students, staff, and parents that makes restorative justice thrive.

Transforming culture takes time, care, and patience, but schools are already under-resourced and stretched thin; yet, if our efforts are rushed or truncated, we run the risk of creating a “watered-down version of restorative justice,” that falls away from its indigenous roots and radical potential. Building restorative justice in schools demands a major reallocation of resources and shifts in priorities on the individual, school, and system-wide levels. Keep exploring our recommendations and other themes, including Invest/Divest, to learn more about what those investments should look like.

Listen to Community Voices

Hear from students, parents, and educators about how restorative justice demands that we transform school culture.

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 transforming school culture.

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

The need to end punitive discipline is urgent

Transforming relationships & values takes time

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 transforming culture 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 transforming the culture 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 transform school culture and grow restorative justice.

  • Recognize that school culture is multifaceted, and building a restorative culture requires rethinking all punitive aspects of school culture, including high-stakes testing and pressures of teacher evaluation. While administrators have limited power over these aspects of school life, they should actively seek to shift harmful aspects of school culture where possible. This may include pursuing creative strategies to build restorative justice work into existing school structures (professional development days, advisory, creating a restorative justice class, etc.), instead of asking staff to develop restorative justice through unpaid labor.
  • Institute a restorative justice action team of staff, students, and parents to guide the development and implementation of restorative justice in the school, ensuring there is a critical mass of people within the school pushing this work forward, rather than a single individual or an external group. This group should be compensated for their time, or be able to participate during the course of their normal duties, not as an unpaid additional responsibility, or volunteer work.
  • Use restorative circles in staff meetings and professional development to increase staff comfort and familiarity with the practices, foster staff buy-in, and normalize staff participation in restorative processes before beginning to use circle practices with students and families. This must include leadership participation.
  • Develop restorative justice conversations and practice through community building efforts, building community trust and buy-in, before using restorative practices to respond to specific moments of harm.
  • Assure that teaching staff and administrators actively participate in circles alongside students, breaking hierarchical norms within the community. By building buy-in with staff, it ensures the growth of restorative justice as a community-wide practice that is also breaking traditional structural norms
  • Leadership must build in time and settings to unpack ideas about discipline, learn about the school-to-prison pipeline, and look at relevant NYC and school-based data (e.g., on suspensions and disparities), and how it all connects to growing restorative justice in schools. While these conversations should begin with school staff, they should grow to include students and their families.

Lily T. (she/her), school staff: Really [building restorative or transformative justice], it’s all relationship stuff. For example, one student who was a part of the young TJ [transformative justice] crew, he was newish and he hadn’t felt confidence to take any leadership roles as a 9th grader… He was also the only Muslim student in the young TJ crew at that time and he said that he wanted to do a peer to peer circle after the shootings that happened in mosques in New Zealand… and I supported him, co-planning it, and he identified some friends, to co-plan with him… [for the talking piece], he brought in his personal Quran and that gesture in him explaining to people how to do that talking piece different from how they typically use talking pieces, and then other Muslim students seeing a Muslim student is leading this…He was super hooked after that, and I definitely noticed an increase in the participation and requests for leadership roles that our Muslim students and our West African students specifically made after that circle. Or, [in general] we do a circle and… most of the people that showed up to a circle were the [student facilitator’s] friend group and they all participated and I’ve never seen them participate in any other realm in our school community.

Demand Policy Change.

Here are some key policies needed to better support our schools in transforming school culture and growing restorative justice.

  • Fund positions that develop community and restorative practices in every school, including RJ coordinators, social workers, guidance counselors, and other support staff (e.g., community assistant, paraprofessionals) as determined by the school community, ensuring that all students have access to such support staff. These should be permanent positions with long-term funding sources to avoid frequent, disruptive staff turnover.
  • Ensure that administrators, staff, and students have citywide opportunities to co-develop and reflect on the growth of restorative and healing-centered practices, including sharing innovative approaches across school communities.