4 Lessons for Implementing Restorative Justice from Our Project Evaluator Anne Gregory
Brooklyn Community Foundation is pleased to announce that Dr. Anne Gregory, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University will be the evaluator for our Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project.
Anne has conducted research and evaluation to help schools improve their implementation of Restorative Justice. Her commitment to high quality Restorative Justice in schools is driven by the need to reduce race and gender disparities in school discipline. Her research interests also include leveraging strong teacher-student relationships for positive change, and supporting teachers through engaging and sustained professional development. On a personal note, Anne was born and raised in Brooklyn herself.
In this blog, Anne shares key lessons from her previous research and why they are critical to our success with the Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project.
In 1995, my experience with one student solidified my commitment to strengthening classrooms and schools for the successful schooling of diverse students. I was with an African American fourth grader who lit up with curiosity and an eagerness to learn in the library with me. He was interested in learning how books were catalogued. Then, together we returned to his classroom. He visibly shifted in his body language. He slouched and dragged his feet as he walked over to his desk, which was set off in the corner at a considerable distance from his peers. The fourth grader had been referred to me for behavior problems in the classroom. His teacher voiced her anger at him as she described his disruptive behavior. As she spoke, I mentally kept the vision of him in the library side by side with her description of him. The dueling portraits of that fourth grade African American boy have propelled my research over the last two decades.
In the beginning years of my scholarly work, I documented the power of adult relationships in preventing and diffusing disciplinary interactions in school. I also examined their possibility for increasing racial equity in school. More recently, I have sought systematic ways to improve adult-student relationships and create school environments characterized by fairness, support, and high academic and behavioral expectations. Given its relational focus, restorative justice (RJ) programming drew my interest. Over the last five years, I have strived to advance the field’s understanding of RJ and its promise.
Here is some of what I have learned:
Student Voice. So often, as new programs are implemented in schools, we don’t hear from students themselves—especially from students in marginalized groups. With this in mind, I wanted to learn from the African American and Latino students as their teachers implemented restorative practices in their classrooms. We asked them, “If you participated in a community building circle in your classroom, what did you think about it?” An overwhelming majority of the 200 students described positive benefits of participating in community-building circles. For example, a student said, “I believe the circle is a great way to express thoughts when people are usually scared to.” They talked about how circles helped them learn about one another. Another student said, “We shared our very different ways of thinking.” They talked about how circles helped them build community. A student said, “It’s a good way of bringing the class together.” Another mentioned that, “Circles let students and teachers connect.” I also found that in classrooms where teachers used more restorative practices in their classrooms, students tended to feel a greater sense of community with their peers (Gregory, 2016). With greater connection among youth and adults, discipline incidents may be prevented in the first place.
Restorative Classrooms. In another project, I found out that when teachers frequently used restorative practices in the classrooms, they also tended to issue few discipline referrals to their students, including to their African American and Latino students. In contrast, teachers infrequently using restorative practices tended to issue many more referrals to African American and Latino students relative to White and Asian students. This indicates, in my opinion, the promise of restorative approaches in narrowing racial disparities in school discipline (Gregory & Clawson, 2016).
Restorative Conferences. I am currently working with researchers and school officials from the Denver Public Schools. We found that when students participated in restorative conferences in the fall, they were less likely to receive suspension or a discipline referral in the spring. This occurred no matter the race/ethnicity of the student and no matter the reason the student was issued the discipline referral (Anyon et al., 2016). Taken together this work demonstrated the promise of restorative justice programming.
The Challenges of Implementation. I know that bringing in new programming (on top of all the other initiatives) is challenging. Good implementation of RJ programming requires authentic integration of student and family voice throughout the disciplinary process. It requires investing the time to build community to prevent discipline incidents from arising in the first place. It requires thoughtful planning to ensure students from marginalized groups experience school as supportive, fair, and holding high academic and behavioral expectations.
Regular collection and analyses of data can support the implementation process. For example, in two high schools, I found that upfront training days mattered. The more training days teachers had, the more likely they were to engage students in circles. So, turns out, training days were a good investment. Interviewing teachers I have found that teachers crave consistent messages and support from their administration about restorative programming. In prior projects, teachers have said they received mixed messages from their administrators about taking classroom time to use restorative justice programming. Also, many teachers craved more implementation supports—they wanted more demonstrations and co-facilitation with their own students. At the same time, teachers buy-in increased when they had positive experiences using restorative approaches to discipline. This teacher had a positive experience that compelled her to continue using restorative dialogues and circles with students. She said:
I’ve had [a] student who gave me problems for months, I called his parents, I tried everything and nothing was working. (A colleague) and I worked closely together with this student and we sat down and we did a circle and he facilitated and asked some questions, and all of us had a dialogue and after that conversation, you know the student, he voiced his concerns. He wanted things a little bit more exciting, a little bit more different, and he told me some of the things that you know maybe we can possibly change in the class, and because of that and without…the students egging him on, when it was just that one-on-one and we were in a circle, I had no problems with him for the rest of the year (Korth, 2016).
I am looking forward to the upcoming collaboration. In the coming years, I plan to work with school administrators, teachers and RJ coordinators. We will use data to help uncover needs and identify strengths in the implementation. We will also identify how RJ has made a difference in the lives of students, teachers, and administrators. Ultimately, we hope to identify how restorative justice can promote social justice and racial justice.