Labor Watch

Teachers Unions Push Restorative Justice Without Evidence

Hardly a week goes by nowadays without some video of a student violently assaulting or verbally attacking their teacher going viral online. Fellow students record the incident and react with shock and laughter as if our nation’s kids are now acting as amateur Jerry Springer Show producers and audience members.

Something is wrong. We all know it. The students know it. “Progressives” pretend it’s not getting worse. But do you remember these incidents being so common when you were young? I don’t.

It’s funny how when faced with a deteriorating new trend in society we never look back at the times when this didn’t happen nearly as much. Perhaps we can learn some lessons from the days when school shootings were nonexistent and discipline issues consisted more of chewing gum in class than teacher assaults.

Restorative Justice

Instead of looking at the long historical record, we prefer the shiny new idea. Enter restorative justice. This new educational fad has swept the nation, but why? Are the ideas backed by solid research? Sadly, the trend took off with few and flawed studies to back it.

So how does an idea with little supporting research spread quickly across the nation’s schools? Easy. It was promoted by Barack Obama and the nation’s largest teachers unions. For example, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) website devotes an entire page to restorative justice resources, including a reference to the 2014 AFT convention, where the AFT adopted a resolution supporting restorative justice in schools. The National Education Association (NEA) similarly has an entire webpage promoting “Restorative Practices,” which provides a series of articles on how to implement restorative justice in schools.

A quick recap for those who aren’t familiar with it. Restorative Justice is the idea that students need to have counseling sessions with teachers and circle talks with peers instead of expulsions and suspensions to work out their issues when they misbehave. Obama pushed this as a way to solve the so-called racism that is to blame, in his eyes, for the high suspension rates of minority students.

The origins of these practices are the criminal justice system, which is ironic because one of the arguments behind restorative justice is to combat the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Similar methods have been used since the 1970s to reduce incarceration rates and recidivism, and then, in turn, the principles have been loosely applied to schools.

Design Flaws

The problem is criminal adults are not the same as misbehaving high school kids. An adult who has gone so far as entering the prison system is perhaps finally ready to seek some help in life, having hit rock bottom, and may have the maturity to benefit from such counseling sessions. But a teenager too often views a counseling session as a laughable slap on the wrist. A non-punishment so light it becomes something to ridicule and brag about to friends.

Regrettably, the reform-minded do-gooders who have pushed restorative justice fell into the trap of ignoring the realities of human nature and biology—a trap that captures so many academics detached from the real world. Young people are often not ready for such abstract techniques. Simple consequences that they want to avoid, coupled with encouragement and caring, of course, are far more helpful than a therapy session for most misbehaving students. This is not to downplay the role of therapy in certain circumstances.

Furthermore, the voluntary nature of restorative justice (asking a kid to talk about their issues) means its design has a fatal flaw. Have you ever tried to get a high school kid to talk about their feelings? It’s not easy. And some kids simply don’t want to participate. When that happens, it’s game over. It’s not like a suspension which happens whether the student likes it or not. With restorative justice, the entire process can be stopped right at the onset by a student who says, “No thanks.”

Imagine yourself as a high school student. Try to remember what that was like. You know that no matter how bad your behavior is, the only consequences will be sitting down with some adults asking questions. And if a person simply says, “I don’t want to talk about it” the whole “punishment” is essentially over. These kids aren’t dumb. To many of them, restorative justice is just a get-out-of-jail-free card, so to speak. No consequences. It doesn’t take an academic to realize this wouldn’t work or at the least would have only limited benefits and a ton of potential negative effects.

After implementing these ideas formally or informally across the nation, we have the research to show it doesn’t work.

The Research

In her article “The Promise of ‘Restorative Justice’ Starts to Falter Under Rigorous Research,” Jill Barshaw discusses the studies that show the failures of restorative justice, commenting that in one study, “academic achievement fell for some students who were exposed to restorative justice.” If academic achievement falls when a program is introduced, it is counterproductive to education and should be suspended. In particular, math test scores went down for black students when restorative justice was implemented. The studies also showed that bullying rates did not change, and suspensions did not change at a lower rate than schools that did not implement the new practices. What about student encounters with law enforcement? “The number of student arrests was similar at both treatment and control schools.” So much for ending the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

Perhaps if the nation’s teachers unions were less interested in pushing their political and racial narratives and more concerned with the actual data on what helps students and what doesn’t, they never would have pushed these flawed ideas across the country in the first place.


Kali Fontanilla

Kali is serving as CRC’s Senior fellow, particularly focusing on topics related to K-12 public education. She has 15 years of experience as a credentialed educator working in public and…
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