Zachary Robbins is the superintendent of Marysville School District 25 in Marysville, WA.

When I became principal of Cheyenne High School in Las Vegas 10 years ago, we suspended and expelled African American students at a rate five times that of other groups of students. I realized we had to do something because our approach was not right, it wasn’t working, and there had to be a better way. So, three years later I took a team of educators from my school to a conference in Colorado on restorative justice.

Most of the people at the conference were from the criminal justice system, which is where the idea of restorative justice began. Still, we took what we learned there and put together the bones of our own program within about a month—the first such program in Nevada—and figured out how to make it work. This past fall, I became the superintendent of Marysville School District 25 in Marysville, WA, and we are recognizing the need to begin a similar restorative justice program.

Most people have probably heard the term “restorative justice” but might not be sure what it means. In short, it’s a process where students can restore their standing in the community (the school community in this case) after they have committed some sort of offense within the community.

Throughout my career as a teacher and administrator in various locations around the country, I have seen the same challenges in many of the schools where I have worked. Too often, the only discipline tools in the toolbox were expulsion and suspension—basically consequences that remove students from school. That approach rarely helps students understand how they could have redirected their behavior, what they could have done differently, and how their behavior affects others.

There Must Be Consequences

One area where I differ from some advocates of restorative justice is my firm belief that there are certain behaviors you simply cannot accept in a school. Some things must be addressed immediately. For example, you can’t have kids cursing out their teachers; you can’t have kids fighting each other; you can’t have kids jumping other kids; and you can’t have kids robbing students, breaking into lockers, or engaging in unlawful behavior. When schools choose to forego consequences for unacceptable behavior, I believe that’s a mistake.

I’ve seen workshops on restorative justice that stop at building relationships. The theory is that you build relationships with students and everything else gets better. If that were the case, then relationship-building interventions that have been around since the 1970s would have resulted in far fewer students being disruptive or doing egregious things. Yet, you still see many places where relationships between students and staff are exceptional, but you continue to see an increase in behavioral issues because the root of those behaviors remains unaddressed.

Once you have a clear sense of what offenses require out-of-school consequences, you can focus on the many other issues where restorative justice is an appropriate, effective approach to improving behavior. Take the example of a student who violates the dress code and, as a result, he goes off on the teacher. It’s mostly about the student’s pride, and he’s trying to prove something, but now he’s disregarding more school rules and being insubordinate.

We look at the student and we say, “OK, he may have had one or two behavior infractions throughout the school year, but do we really need to remove him from school and cause him to miss class, potentially fall behind in his academic work, and probably inconvenience his family because he can’t be left home alone? Instead of doing that, let’s send him to a restorative justice tribunal.” That means we take him through a school-based process where we try to understand the behavior, why it happened, and how it affected him and others. Then we can talk about replacement behaviors, what he might have done differently, have him meet with the teacher who referred him for discipline, and work together to repair that relationship.

Students as Active Participants

Besides the involvement of staff (such as the school counselor and social worker) and parents, two or three students serve as peer advocates for the student who has been sent to the tribunal. These students must learn about confidentiality and about consequences, and sometimes they propose alternative solutions based on the infraction.

Sometimes students sent to a restorative justice tribunal were just having a really bad day and their behavior was out of the norm. We’ve found that many students who end up in restorative justice tribunals need some degree of therapeutic intervention. With some kids, the root of their behavior is primarily academic. Maybe they don’t read well, so we get them extra reading help. Other times we’ve found that kids didn’t have enough food or heat at home, so we work with our outside partners to help provide wraparound services to families. That social and emotional support can really help us get at why they were acting out. After the initial reaction, a lot of the work centers on prevention.

One unanticipated outcome has been the effect on the students who serve as advocates. Many advocates take the process to heart and form relationships with the students who committed the behavior infractions.

I remember one girl who frequently fought in school. She went through the tribunal and became a peer advocate, which is something we make the students who have gone through the process do to help others. She was a tough kid and, unfortunately, that also made her popular. But after serving as a peer advocate, she would befriend other kids who she saw were about to get in trouble. She would say things like, “Stay away from that,” or “You don’t need that. This is no good. Just walk away.”

That young woman graduated from high school, went on to college, and studied to be a social worker. I’ll never forget when she walked into my office, a grown woman who was on her way to becoming a professional. She was so proud of herself, and I told her how proud I was of her, too.

Most Students Don’t Get in Trouble Again

The process is powerful, and we have data to back it up. Our success rate with restorative justice in my previous district was around 98%, which means students don’t get referred to a tribunal for a second time to face consequences. If students do act out again, they need a different kind of intervention. Fortunately, that’s very rare. More broadly, we’ve found that disruptive behavior drops substantially once we implement restorative justice.

With all the disruption resulting from the pandemic, kids need therapeutic wraparound supports more than ever, and they need safer and more orderly school environments. I believe that the restorative justice tribunal process is valuable in helping meet those needs.

Zachary Robbins, EdD, is the superintendent of Marysville School District 25 in Marysville, WA, and the author of Restorative Justice Tribunal: And Ways to Derail Jim Crow Discipline in Schools. Previously, he was the principal of Cheyenne High School in Las Vegas, NV, and the 2022 Nevada Principal of the Year.