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Restorative Justice in Schools, Explained

When the Oakland Unified school district’s restorative justice coordinator, David Yusem, walks into one of the district’s schools, he wants to know how it feels: Does it feel caring? Is there beauty on the walls? Do people seem to be happy? Are people showing up because they feel loved?

That’s how he tries to gauge the California district’s nearly two-decade progress with restorative justice practices, a complete reimagining of school culture, and building a school community, while also ultimately dismantling a racially disproportionate discipline structure.

“We know it works from our personal experiences with it,” he said. “I can point to numbers that show it works, but those numbers aren’t as important.”

Student misbehavior has increased following the pandemic, leading to more classroom friction since schools returned to in-person learning. A crisis of chronic absenteeism has eroded community connections, complicating the fostering of a supportive and trusting environment.

Even as educators see an uptick in misbehavior, nearly half of teachers and administrators say their schools are using restorative justice practices more now than five years ago, according to a recent EdWeek Research Center survey. But the purest version of the restorative justice framework is hard to come by, said Allison Payne, a professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania who studies the practice.

“It requires a complete overhaul of not just the disciplinary structure but the full ethos of a school,” she said.

Here’s an overview of what restorative justice is and how it fits into the larger school system.

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