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How Restorative Justice Makes Better Schools For Everyone

There’s a lot of talk about justice in our country these days. We want to see ourselves as a place where wrongs can be made right. 

Even though, in its purest form, “Justice for All” is one of the foundational ideas that was intended to make democracy different, the United States has had a long, complicated, and sometimes unhealthy relationship to this concept.

So, how does justice come into play when we’re talking about discipline in schools? How do we understand what justice is at its root — and are there responses to “rule breaking” that are more effective all around for students, staff, and communities?

I want to lay out the basic concept of restorative justice — and show you how approaching discipline from a restorative standpoint makes all the difference for students well into adulthood. 

If you have any questions or want to become involved in what we’re doing, please reach out. 

THANK YOU for being a part of this exciting journey. I wake up every day energized and hopeful at the thought of a generation of amazing kids who have been so cared for, so thoughtfully taught, so equipped, and so EMPOWERED that they will have the capacity to beautifully transform the future.

In service, 
Heidi DeCoux

How is justice currently understood in our culture?

From the time we are young children, we learn and experience what is just and what isn’t. We read books where the bad guys get their “just deserts.” We watch movies where superheroes vanquish villains. We want wrongdoers to be held accountable.

In our current culture, the notion of justice is intimately wrapped up in a sense of “evening the score.” It holds that if someone transgresses another’s trust, dignity, person, or livelihood, then the offender deserves to be punished. The punishment is how you “fix” the problem. It’s how you make things fair and right again, and the focus is almost entirely on the transgressor.

This way of understanding justice is practiced and lived out not only in the penal system, but also in our schools, our workplaces, and our communities.

Does punishment = justice?

One of the many complications of the way we see and mete out justice in our current systems is that it is inevitably unevenly applied. People with lots of money, power, or privilege often seem to skate by with fewer consequences. And others — specifically the poor, the marginalized, and people of color — receive punishments that are more frequent and harsher, even for the same infractions.

We know that these disparities can negatively affect people for their entire lives. The injustice that starts with schools giving more days of suspension to young kids of color winds up being mirrored in a court system that doles out sentences that are on average about 20% longer for the same crimes. 

How do we create a disciplinary response in schools that doesn’t create more harm?

How is restorative justice different?

The easiest way to understand how radically different restorative justice is from “regular” justice is to look at the foundational focus of each.

Our current paradigms ask: What law (or rule) was broken? Who broke it? And what should the punishment be?

Restorative justice asks:Who was harmed? What do they need? And whose obligation is it to meet those needs?

The shift is subtle but monumental.

Restorative justice holds that all harm is done in the context of human relationship, at a deep soul level — even when the perpetrator and victim are strangers. So the way to deal with what has happened must naturally include both/all parties; those who have been harmed are part of the conversation. The perpetrators have to face something much more powerful than punishment: they have to face themselves.

Rather than focusing on “getting even,” the goal of restorative justice is to have everyone emerge more whole, more healed, more connected, and truly transformed.

And here’s the thing: the results speak for themselves. This approach creates better outcomes for everyone,in the moment and long-term. It provides outcomes for victims that are healthier and more satisfying. It provides the space for perpetrators to become new people, to end cycles of violence and self-sabotage and broken relationships.

Illuminated Life School’s commitment

Illuminated Life School is centered on the premise that schools thrive when they do what works for students and staff as whole people — body, mind, spirit. Radical, right?

And we know that standard approaches to discipline don’t work: conventional zero-tolerance punishment correlates with lower academic outcomes overall, even for kids who never step out of line. Why would we sign up for that?

Our commitment at Illuminated Life School is to practice restorative justice with all students and staff — to keep the focus on relationship, to listen to those who have been harmed, and to find creative ways to meaningfully repair that harm in a way that allows all involved to move forward. We want our students to learn how inextricably linked their lives are to others’, to experience empathy, and to make wholehearted amends when necessary.

When we teach them how to have the conversations that matter, we equip them to make the choices that will propel them into a more illuminated life.