Harsh approaches to school discipline and safety may have unintended consequences that negatively affect students. Exclusionary discipline and the criminalization of minor infractions have been shown to limit student achievement and labeling research shows that official sanctions can increase youth involvement in antisocial behavior while also increasing punitive responses, as part of the "school-to-prison" pipeline. Moreover, a growing body of evidence finds that these sanctions are often applied disproportionately to youth of color.
Restorative justice provides an alternative that can improve school safety without the punitive culture currently found in many schools. Restorative justice focuses on repairing harm to victims as opposed to retribution for offenses. Because of its focus on inclusion, accountability, and the community, restorative justice within school settings is a promising approach that warrants greater examination.
The Central Falls School District will partner with three local educational agencies (LEAs) in Rhode Island to conduct a pilot implementation of restorative justice conferencing. Working in both middle and high school settings over a two school-year timeframe, these LEAs will conduct more than 1,300 restorative justice conferences with youth who would otherwise be suspended (and possibly arrested) on low-level offenses.
A restorative justice conference is a highly structured, facilitated meeting that allows affected parties (e.g., victim and offender) and their allies (e.g., parents, peers) to arrive at the best possible solution for all following a negative event or behavior. The participating LEAs have already begun to embrace a practice of integrating restorative practice into school disciplinary procedures, which greatly enhances their capacity to implement the proposed model.
The Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute will lead our project's evaluation. In addition to analyzing the processes used to deliver the intervention, researchers will conduct a rigorous impact evaluation using a quasi-experimental design that will compare the outcomes of students who participate in conferencing (treatment) to students from non-treatment LEAs who have been disciplined for similar offenses (comparison). The Providence Plan, a data intermediary that possesses the administrative data needed for the project, will support the evaluation. The Urban Institute will develop manuscripts for academic journals as well as policy briefs for practitioners, while The Providence Plan will develop a series of reports and data visualizations to share with local education, juvenile justice, and public policy leaders.