Chicago Public Schools have, unsurprisingly, seen a drop in suspensions since implementing restorative-justice practices; such tactics are often explicitly adopted as an alternative form of discipline. One report found that in the 2013–14 school year, 16 percent of high-school students received an out-of-school suspension, down from 23 percent in 2008–09. “There’s been enormous progress in reducing disciplinary problems in Chicago schools since we started practicing restorative justice,” said Nancy J. Michaels, the associate director of the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation in Chicago.
In Los Angeles, restorative-justice programs have been hailed as a success for shrinking suspension rates, too. A recent report found that restorative-justice programs and other disciplinary initiatives have led to a 92 percent decrease in the number of days lost to suspensions. The city plans to establish restorative-justice programs in all schools by 2020.
In classrooms, however, not everyone is on board with the restorative-justice approach. In both Chicago and Los Angeles, some teachers have criticized the method for reducing their ability to maintain discipline. Some teachers have also complained that there hasn’t been enough training and resources available to correctly implement the new approach.
Schools, according to Gregory, are most effective in implementing restorative-justice practices when teachers are given enough instruction on how to use the approach. “There is a lot of hard work to be done to make sure restorative justice works,” she said. “You can’t just declare it’s the school policy.”
As part of his vow to avoid overly punitive discipline, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is funding pilot programs in restorative justice. Brady Smith, the principal of the James Baldwin School in Manhattan, said that restorative-justice practices have contributed to a decrease in disciplinary actions against students. “We hardly have any suspensions,” Smith said. He pointed to restorative-justice circles as among the most powerful tools. “Children in our society are so rarely given a chance to speak up,” Brady said.
At Ebbets Field Middle School in Brooklyn, which adopted restorative justice this past school year thanks to a grant from the Brooklyn Community Foundation, suspensions have dropped by more than 30 percent compared with the year before, according to Michelle Patterson Murray, an assistant principal at the school.* In touting the approach’s effectiveness, she cited a recent incident in which a student stole an item. “Rather than call her parents or apply for a suspension, we sat in a circle and talked about how her action damaged the trust of the community,” Patterson said.
Still, as New York and other cities jump onto the restorative-justice bandwagon, education researchers say carefully-designed studies need to be done to prove the approach’s effectiveness. Catherine Bradshaw, an education professor at the University of Virginia, is conducting a randomized study on the effects of restorative-justice practices on school discipline. The three-year study, funded by a $13 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, is looking at 40 schools in Maryland, 10 of which are using restorative justice. “There’s a lot of energy and buzz around” the practice, Bradshaw said. But, she added, “we can’t find effective ways to reduce violence without taking a systematic, scientific approach to understanding and evaluating the tools that we are using.”