The predictable failure of ‘restorative justice’ in schools


As American students enter the 2023-2024 school year, our educational system faces three interlocking crises: severe academic underperformance, rampant student misbehavior and an unprecedented teacher shortage.

While there are many components to each of these issues, one common thread linking and exacerbating them all is the turn toward so-called restorative justice in schools.

In contrast to traditional approaches to discipline, which rely on punishment to deter future misbehavior, restorative justice “encourages students to reflect on their transgressions and their root causes, talk about them — usually with the victims of the misbehavior — and try to make amends.” This approach began to gain adherents in the mid-2010s and has gained popularity in the near decade since, despite the — entirely predictable — evidence against its efficacy.

It should have been obvious that academic outcomes would get worse if students could misbehave with impunity. Learning is affected when students are distracted from their task by students who are disruptive. Although suspensions and expulsions may seem extreme, they can provide relief to well-behaved children from disruption or victimization. They also serve as a deterrent to those who are inclined to misbehave. Chaos is not conducive to academic learning. Restorative justice programs encourage students to blame factors outside their control for misbehavior. Nearly all of them encourage students to blame factors outside their own control for misbehavior.

While interrogating motivations for bad behavior and developing the emotional language and self-awareness to speak negative feelings rather than act on them is indeed useful, it becomes counterproductive if we assume, as many restorative justice advocates do, that said motivations are external to the child rather than borne of their own innate desire to do something wrong (i.e., what we used to call temptation).

When students learn to say “I pushed you because I was hungry” or the like, they are claiming external reasons for antisocial behavior. Restorative justice does not teach students self-control to act in a pro-social manner. It doesn’t matter if I pushed you out of anger or hunger, we still don’t want you to be pushed again. Neither my eating schedule nor my visceral emotions will always be ideal; so, best to recognize that, contra the zeitgeist of restorative justice, the problematic behavior has only one source that I can control: my own susceptibility to temptation.

Finally, it should have been obvious that teachers, like all rational human beings, prefer order to chaos, safety to danger, and purpose to futility. If a school is not allowed to use traditional disciplinary measures that promote order and safety in the classroom, many teachers are likely to move to other, less demanding jobs. Teachers who are good at their jobs will not be motivated to babysit preteens or teens, which is what happens when there is no order in the school. It’s not only attrition, but the attrition of teachers who refuse to participate in this charade. In the same way as in many other short-sighted virtue-signaling policies, it’s the socio-economically challenged children of color who are the ones suffering the consequences of such blind ideological adherence. The vast majority of them are the victims of violence and misbehavior at school, not the perpetrators. And all so that progressive elites, most of them white, can feel good about using the word “justice” to describe a new system that in fact perpetrates, on their watch, ever more profound injustice against the very people they claim to want to help.

Elizabeth Grace Matthew is a visiting fellow at Independent Women’s Forum and a Young Voices Contributor.

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