Abstract: Restorative Justice Legislation with Implications for Educational Settings: A Landscape Scan of the United States (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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595P Restorative Justice Legislation with Implications for Educational Settings: A Landscape Scan of the United States

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Jen Molloy, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Montana, Missoula, MT
Caroline Ross, MPA, Director, Sorenson Impact Center, University of Utah
Maddy Colson, BA, MSW Student, University of Montana, School of Social Work
Michael Riquino, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS
Van Nguyen, PhD, Research Consultant, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT
Sarah Reese, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Montana, Missoula, MT
Ashley Trautman, MSW, JD, Assistant Professor, University of Montana
Background and Purpose: Across the nation, school districts, stakeholders, and policymakers have become increasingly concerned about the negative short- and long-term consequences of punitive and exclusionary disciplinary practices on students. Research consistently demonstrates that students of color disproportionately bear the burden of these zero-tolerance policies, including facing suspensions, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement, and arrests in school at higher rates than their white peers. Restorative justice in education (RJE) is emerging as a promising alternative to these practices for its ability to improve student behavior, as well as school climate, culture, and safety.

States around the nation have passed legislation promoting the implementation of RJE. However, research on the advancement of RJ policy with implications for educational settings has been extremely limited. There are questions concerning the ability of these policies to pragmatically influence disciplinary practices in schools, as well as their potential to effectively transform the root causes of disparities in school disciplinary action. We sought to address these questions in the present study by: (1) providing a comprehensive directory of RJ legislation with implications for educational settings, and (2) describing key features of RJE legislation through multiple lenses, including pragmatism and transformation.

Methods: Data collection for this study was conducted using the legal research database, Nexis Uni. The research team developed a list of search terms to systematically review legislation from all 50 states that pertained to RJ initiatives implemented in educational settings. We then conducted a directed content analysis, followed by open coding of other relevant defining features. Codes were combined under unifying themes and reviewed using predetermined criteria related to the provision of pragmatic resources/supports or to their transformative potential.

Results: Our review revealed that twenty states and the District of Columbia had relevant RJE legislation. Three primary themes were derived from the content analysis: (1) defining RJ, (2) directives for implementation (e.g., RJ as preferred option, training requirements), and (3) funding appropriations or other supports (e.g., legislative or school district appropriations, grants, taxes).

Conclusions and Implications: This is the first known collection of statewide RJE legislation from across the United States. Numerous states have embedded RJ into their statutes and codes; however, these findings should be considered with caution as the degree to which legislation has been explicitly or implicitly applied is unknown. This initial review found that few states with RJE legislation have adequate mandates, structures, or funding to support the systematic implementation of RJE or to meet policy goals and student needs. Pragmatically, while the legislation we reviewed provides an important invitation for schools and districts across the nation to consider RJE, it leaves many schools and districts wondering about the specific definition of “restorative justice,” as well as available resources. Further, the legislation cannot be considered transformative given that it does not adequately address the root causes of disparities. These results highlight the need for practitioners, policymakers, and scholars to continue exploring the ways RJE policy is being implemented in schools.