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Restorative Discipline: Crippling Kid's Mental Maturity And Validating Violence

I remember the first time I heard about "restorative discipline." I was in one of my last years of teaching and we were being told that kids no longer needed consequences to correct their behavior but a strategy called restorative discipline.

Having been a teacher for almost thirty years, I was suspect of the phrase. You see, education administrations have a way of naming new trends so that they sound really good even when they are really bad. Or worse, ineffective.

When I first heard the term I was mentoring some new teachers at the local high school. The school had just implemented a new strategy that included creating a "ninth grade academy" in our school, a wing dedicated just to 9th grade classes and students. The idea was that 9th graders would adjust better if they were kept out of the 10th, 11th and 12th grade populations and therefore cause fewer incidents and problems. Like most ideas, it didn't work out the way they thought it would. Discipline referrals went up so much that the administrator in charge of the 9th grade academy would hide them in his desk drawer and not log them into our local, state and federal discipline stats. By halfway through the year, his drawer was overflowing. That was a violation of COMAR (State policy).

It was then the onslaught of counselors, psychiatrists, and mental health personnel started showing up to take kids out of class. It was usually the students who were behavior problems. They were glad to leave class because they got free pizza. It didn't matter to administration if these students were missing class time or content because the most important thing was for them to discuss their lives with someone who would then help them learn how to control their emotions. They called it "restorative discipline."

To understand the concept, you need to imagine that you're a teacher with a kid in your class that suddenly jumps up and starts yelling and screaming insults at another student. Then, he/she throws a chair and disrupts class. You try to settle the kid down, but he/she just hurls insults at you.

In the "old days" we would call the office to send an administrator or school resource officer to come get the kid. Then, the teacher would write a referral, the student would get talked to and an appropriate punishment. In three to five days or longer, the student would come back to class. Some kids figured out they needed to stay out of trouble, others didn't. Habitual offenders earned other consequences like the Alternative Learning Center located off campus.

And then came restorative justice, i.e. restorative discipline.

Restorative justice was originally a technique used in prisons with criminals and their victims in the 1970's to mediate between the two and hopefully bring the offender to a realization of why they did what they did and how they could change their behavior and be accountable for "restoring" the victim moving forward. It was based on "reparations" to the victims.

Restorative justice was tested on criminals who faced long jail terms and loss of freedom. In other words, they had already faced the consequences of their evil deeds and were paying the price. A noble cause that made many feel better about themselves. At least convicts in prison seemed to like it.

In 2014, the Obama Administration issued a report on the disparity between punishment of Black students to White students in the public schools. "Zero tolerance" policies were cited as the reason why so many more Black kids were being suspended than Whites. Educators jumped on restorative justice as a method to keep all students in school even after they had been disruptive and/or violent. Like in prison, the practice was implemented by having students sit around in groups and talk about their conflicts with the victims, what they did, why they did it, etc.

At the same time, the Obama Administration issued the "Dear Colleague Letter" which threatened schools with a loss of federal funding if they continued to suspend and expel more minority kids than white kids. Schools, fearful of losing federal money, turned to "restorative practices, counseling, and structured systems of positive interventions." Some even devised a two-tiered discipline system based on race to keep the number of Black suspensions down.

In her book BAD THERAPY WHY THE KIDS AREN'T GROWING UP, Abigail Shrier describes how restorative justice and the incessant need to place our kids in therapy is causing violence, not stopping it.

"Restorative justice" is the official name for schools' therapeutic approach that reimagines all bad behavior as a cry for help.1

Students participate in restorative circles and take turns sharing their pain. The topics of the circle and the "quasi therapy" are confidential, so students are told not to disclose anything to parents.

In her book, Shrier recounts the experience of California public elementary school teacher Ray Shelton who believes restorative circles are abusive. " It puts a lot of the responsibility on the victim. Because they have to face the person who hurt them and talk with them and deal with them when they may not want to," he said. "It just revictimizes them, you know?" 1

It also doesn't seem to work. In 2021, a seventh grader in Chattanooga threw another student through a plate glass window and received only an "in school suspension" and a dose of restorative discipline. Later that year, the same student threatened to stab another kid and was finally suspended after screaming at another student that he was going to "f***ing kill her."1

Shrier shares that "Several teachers told me that thanks to restorative justice, public schools no longer hold back or expel kids in any but the most extreme circumstances. Until they commit egregious acts of criminality, violent kids are kept in school and assigned shadows under the therapeutic ethos: treat, don't punish. (Shadows=a staff member who follows a student throughout the day to see how he/she is doing.)

The restorative approach is what allowed Nikolas Cruz, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School, to shoot and kill 17 students. Cruz had multiple prior violent incidents, but counselors were busy "treating" him instead of removing him from the school or giving him consequences.

Those who speak up against restorative discipline are chastised and told to give the approach "more time." As usual with progressive "solutions" the theory is that if it doesn't work, do it more and more often.

A Rand meta-analysis showed that schools that implemented restorative justice fell apart. The study was conducted in the Pittsburgh Public Schools in 2018. From that study:

We also found negative impacts of PERC (Pursuing Equitable and Restorative Communities). Despite fewer suspensions, academic outcomes did not improve in PERC schools. At the middle grade level (grades 6–8), academic outcomes actually worsened in the treatment schools. Neither did we find fewer suspensions in middle grades. It could be that it is more challenging for restorative practices to positively affect middle grade students, at least within a two-year time frame.

We did not see fewer suspensions for male students, for students with individual education plans, or for incidents of violence or weapons violations. Neither did we see a reduction in arrests. This might be because teachers have more discretion to implement a restorative punishment for nonviolent behavior, whereas the district’s code of conduct requires a suspension for violent behavior. This, of course, raises the question of whether restorative practices can be effective in curbing the most violent behavior, at least within a two-year implementation period.

"Restorative justice destroys and ruins schools," Wisconsin middle school teacher Daniel Buck told Abigail Shrier, "Because if kids know they are going to get away with something without a consequence, they're going to do it.

As in most Progressive programs, proponents claim that schools aren't doing the approach correctly and don't have enough staff to manage it. As usual, there is the cry for more money, more training, more staffing, etc. They seem unable or unwilling to admit that it just doesn't work as an overall solution to student behavior and violent acting out.

They also seem unwilling to recognize the plight of two other groups, those students and teachers victimized by school violence. Even the teachers' unions won't admit the fact that their teachers are endangered by restorative discipline. In a time when teachers are leaving the profession in droves, the practice is exposing them to violence.

Nine years of restorative justice/discipline in schools across the United States and student behavior is out of control while schools have hired more counselors and psychologists than ever before. In one local county, mental health professionals in schools have tripled and the district even has a contract with a private counseling practice to handle students with severe issues.

Students have learned how to "milk" the therapy sessions by using them as an excuse to roam the halls and misbehave with impunity.

"Ask anyone who has worked in some of America's failing public schools and nearly all of them will tell you the same thing: The biggest problem isn't the quality of the teachers," one teacher wrote in the NEW YORK POST in 2018. " It's the behavior of the kids: angry, disruptive, disrespectful kids whose behavior is out of control."

Locally, teachers in grades as low as first grade talk about how children are having meltdowns and temper tantrums in classrooms, often causing the rest of the class to leave the room while a counselor is called to deliver therapy to the disruptive student. The student is often found throwing chairs or destroying school property. The child is not given consequences but is given special attention and treats.

In the higher grades, it was a weekly event that a violent brawl would be recorded on cell phones and posted on Instagram or Tik Tok until the schools hired school resource officers and banned cell phone use during the day. The violence may still occur as often, it just isn't posted on the internet.

More teachers report feeling unsafe in their classrooms. Locally in the span of five days a substitute teacher was knocked to the ground by a student because of a cell phone and another school staffer was attacked by a student. Many teachers report that they will leave the classroom within the next year because of out-of-control students.

Nationally, a huge story last year centered around a teacher's aide being severely beaten by a student because she would not let him have his Nintendo Switch. The aid was hospitalized. Now the attacking student is suing the district.

In North Carolina, a student was arrested for assaulting a teacher.

Is there any doubt that we have a generation of young people who, thanks to restorative justice, think they are immune from consequences? Here's one who learns a difficult lesson:

When you listen to this grown man scream like a two-year-old, we can conclude his maturity has been stunted by being coddled.

There is no denying that things have gone horribly wrong in our schools, and restorative discipline is part of the problem.

“Schools, the children in the schools are actually getting more violent,” said Dr. Norman Fried, Clinical Psychologist and professor at Columbia University.

What can parents do? It's difficult because schools will work very hard to keep from addressing questions from victims of attacks. Most of the time they will not even address the incidents unless, of course, your child fights back. Then YOUR child will be subject to "counseling" and "restorative discipline."

Different situations require different actions. If your child's class is constantly disrupted by student misbehavior, then arrange a meeting with the teacher and then administration if need be. Keep notes of these meetings and document dates and times.

You may have to ask that your child be moved into another class. However, often times this is NOT an option for a variety of reasons. If that is the case, keep pursuing the problem until the school provides a suitable solution. Again, schools will protect the identity of the children in the class, so you won't get detailed info. However, the children know and will often tell you.

You have to protect YOUR child and advocate for his/her mental health and academic progress. Be persistent. Come to terms with the fact that you may have to remove your child from the school yourself and find an alternative if you can. If not, keep fighting and if you have proof of harm to your child, consult legal counsel.

If your child has been hurt by another student document your child's injuries with pictures and info from doctors if the medical system is involved. Get your child's side of the story and write it down.

Make sure all communication between you and the school is in WRITING.

DO NOT approach the other child and/or their parents yourself. In your attempt to remedy the situation, you may get yourself in legal trouble and you could be charged.

Meet with administration. If the principal of the school won't help you, go up the chain to higher administration. Schools have a legal “duty of care” to protect students from undue harm. This duty extends from the moment a student steps onto a school bus until they leave school property.

If the child who attacked your child has a known history of attacking other students, the school may be liable for not taking steps to prevent the aggressor from hurting children. This will require proof that the school knew the child was violent and neglected their duty to protect your child.

Most school personnel want to do the right thing. Many staff members feel helpless in the face of ridiculous state and national regulations. However, when they tell you "It's out of our hands" it is NOT out of their hands and they CAN do something to alleviate the problem. It might just involve more time and paperwork on their part.

In short, know your child's rights, your rights, and the legal responsibility of the school.

As the children get more out of control, systems will be forced to admit that they need to address school violence more directly. Restorative discipline will be another progressive program that failed and will be discarded.

Unfortunately, our kids can't wait for that to happen.

SPECIAL NOTE: We have heard that our local schools have reinstated the Alternative Learning Center or ALC for those students who disrupt in school so much they are removed to allow other students to learn and be safe.


  1. Bad Therapy Why the Kids Aren't Growing Up, Abigail Shrier, Copyright 2024, Sentinel Press


Jan Greenhawk, Author

April 29, 2024

Jan Greenhawk is a former teacher and school administrator for over thirty years. She has two grown children and lives with her husband in Maryland. She also spent over twenty-five years coaching/judging gymnastics and coaching women’s softball.

This article was originally featured on the Easton Gazette.


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