Native students are disciplined at roughly two times the rate of their White peers and have a dropout/pushout rate twice the national average. Restorative justice (RJ) is a viable strategy that addresses these disparities by taking a relational versus a punitive approach to address harm caused to others. Typically, student educational outcomes (GPA, attendance, and discipline reports) are used to measure the success of the RJ approach, but less understood is whether RJ creates a relational school culture and improves school-based relationships and sense of belonging.
Methods: Using Fullan’s change theory, semi-structured interviews across three high schools along the Utah/Navajo Nation border. All high schools were in their fourth year of RJ implementation. Principals, assistant principals, school social workers and students were asked questions about how discipline was handled and positive relationships occurred. Thematic and interpretive phenomenological analysis was used to understand the ways RJ improved school based relationships and sense of belonging. The student body demographics in the three high schools range from majority White students, half Native and half White, and majority Native students. All of the administration and social workers/counselors interviewed are White. Half of the students interviewed identify as White and the other half identify as Native, Latino or mixed race (Latino/Native).
Results: Systemwide change and capacity building in schools takes a good deal of time and effort and thus, findings were mixed among Native and non-Native high school students’ sense of belonging and positive relationships. Very few students knew that restorative justice practices were being implemented, thus making the role of RJ unclear. However, many students expressed having a positive relationship with the school social worker, who had been trained in restorative justice.
Conclusion & Implications: The overall findings were unable to directly assess if and how RJ fosters students’ sense of belonging or positive relationships. However, the findings did highlight the school's strengths and areas of improvement for creating a relational school culture. More research is needed to understand the mechanisms of RJ and its effects on the school culture to address the relational needs of all students, but particularly for Native students.