Restorative justice (RJ) is a philosophy or pedagogy focused on building, strengthening, and repairing relationships through dialogue and community building. RJ, rooted in indigenous cultures, has been adapted for the criminal justice, education, and child welfare systems. RJ has become a major strategy to address high rates of suspensions and racially disproportional school discipline. However, few studies report that restorative justice practices eliminate racially disproportionate discipline. To examine this phenomenon, we ask, (1) how are restorative practices being implemented within schools, (2) how do school-based RJ programs account for or buffer against racial bias and/or the historical legacy of socio-political White supremacy and (3) are school-based restorative justice programs being implemented with a commitment to its original indigenous practices? To examine these questions, we conducted a systematic review of the literature and used critical race theory (CRT) to critique gaps in the literature pertaining to race and inequality.
Nine databases were used to explore the literature: Scopus, Web of Science, Sociological Abstract, PyscInfo, PsycArticles, Eric, CINAHL Complete, Education Source, Academic Search Complete. Given the proliferation of school-based restorative practice models since the 2014 Department of Education and Department of Justice Guidance Package on school discipline, two key inclusion criteria were (1) that the article was published since 2016 and (2) that the RJ intervention took place in a school. Thus, for the first research question, we used the following search terms: “elementary”, “high school”, “restorative justice” and “restorative practices”. From this, a total of 374 articles were identified, 300 articles were excluded because they were not school-based. For the second and third research question, we included the terms “racial”, “race”, “racism”, “bias” “bigotry”, “discrimination”, “white supremacy”, “indigenous”, “Maori”, “Tribe”. This resulted in 110 articles of which 90 were excluded, as they were not school-based.
Of the 74 studies describing school-based use of restorative practices, most studies used restorative practices to (1) reduce overall school suspensions and (2) reduce disproportional school suspensions. However, a common barrier was the lack of a clear definition of restorative justice and inconsistent application. Without a clear definition and consistent application, schools strayed from the indigenous framework of restorative practices. We use CRT tenets to support this analysis, specifically, race as a social construct, the centrality of voices of color and the prevalence of socio-political white supremacy. Of the twenty studies meeting the criteria of racial bias, indigenous practices, or white supremacy we found the major inhibitors to be minimal teacher buy in, limited school-wide reform, and surface level restorative practices.
Using CRT, in most studies we noted a color-blind and indigenous-blind approach to implementation of RJ. We posit that this has contributed to the continued discipline disproportionality in schools implementing RJ. Schools using RJ should revisit its indigenous origins, to help school social workers and educators reimagine and implement a more culturally accurate and anti-racist version of RJ. Many schools are using restorative practices; however, it’s important to return to the roots of community, mutual respect, and trust.