Share story

Nicholas Bradford, founder, Restorative Justice Center of the Northwest
Nicholas Bradford, founder, Restorative Justice Center of the Northwest

Schools nationwide are facing the hard-to-refute fact that using suspension to discipline students doesn’t do much to improve their behavior — and may make it worse.

But what if there was a way to nudge kids who disrupt classrooms or bully peers to atone for those violations by confronting them?

What if the atonement itself actually strengthened the relationship between students and their schools?

Nicholas Bradford, a member of the Coast Guard Reserve, says such a technique exists, and it’s called Restorative Justice. Maybe that sounds a bit kumbaya, but the approach has been used successfully in tough Oakland schools and in some prisons.

Bradford spoke with Education Lab about this practice, and its implications for students here.

Q: What exactly is Restorative Justice, and why do you think it’s a smart way to approach school discipline?

A: It’s an approach to conflict that holds a youth accountable for harm, while simultaneously building relationships. The usual way — suspending kids — just pushes them out and further damages the relationship between student and teacher.

Q: So how does it work?

A: Usually, you sit down with the person who did the harm, and with the victim. Also, a facilitator who’s not connected to the problem and some members of the community, like other people in the school. Then you go through these questions: What happened? What were your thoughts at that moment? And how were people harmed?

The facilitator asks what the victim needs, and asks how you, as the author of this act, are going to meet those needs?

Then we turn to the person who did the harm and ask, what do you need from us to be more successful and not do this again? In a school, that might mean better support services or tutoring. An agreement is written up, and the youth has between a week and a month to complete that contract. If they do, it’s closed out — wiped clean.

Q: Where did this approach come from?

A: With Maori tribes in New Zealand. During the 1980s, they grew tired of the New Zealand government locking up their kids with no change happening in the youth. In their indigenous tradition, judges did not mete out punishment. The whole community was involved, and the intended outcome was repair. Instead of focusing on blame, they wanted to know why, because they believed that finding the root cause of a crime was part of resolving it. Since then, it’s spread to Australia, South Africa, England, Canada and Northern America.

Q: And into Puget Sound schools?

A: Yes, there are a number of districts that are really interested in this, including Tacoma, Spanaway Lake, Highline and Kent.

Q: One of the toughest issues in discipline is that kids of different races tend to receive different punishments for the same violation. Does Restorative Justice address that?

A: Yes, because having a strong relationship with your school is highly correlated to academic success. With our young black and brown boys, we can’t continue to say, ‘You don’t belong here.’ When schools suspend students, that’s exactly what they hear. With Restorative Justice, you change that message. You’re saying, ‘We want you here. What you did isn’t OK. And we’re going to ask you questions about it. We’re going to invest this time because we care and we want you around.’