How We’re Shifting School Culture Through Restorative Justice

What is restorative justice and how is it creating a paradigm shift in the culture at KIPP Bay Area Schools? In this post, Head of Schools Ric Zappa explains how implementing restorative justice practices has led to fewer students missing class and improved academic performance.

KIPP Bay Area professional development day

By Ric Zappa, Head of Schools and Character Development, KIPP Bay Area Schools

Ask any educator the one thing they wish for their students, and I’ll bet it won’t be solving a hard math problem or reading a challenging book. Teachers say they want their students to become happy, engaged citizens. That means looking beyond just academics, to student behavior and the way we approach discipline.

In March, 300 KIPP educators from around the Bay Area came together for a day of professional development on these issues. We focused on social-emotional learning, mindfulness, and something that our region is shining a spotlight on: restorative justice.

What is restorative justice? In simple terms, it is working with people to resolve problems. In the restorative approach, we are less concerned with what rules have been broken, and more with how people and relationships have been harmed. All the affected individuals come together, including and most importantly the offender(s). Working with a facilitator, they move through a set of restorative questions designed to help everyone understand each other’s point of view. Then, together the group decides how to resolve and repair the situation.


A New Paradigm at KIPP Summit

I first learned about restorative justice as a teacher at KIPP Summit Academy in San Lorenzo, CA. I’ve been in education for over 30 years, and over time I have noticed a pattern. Schools’ discipline policies haven’t been taking students’ unique needs into account. Rather, they simply apply a set of standard consequences to any infraction. At KIPP Summit, I saw many of the same students get sent to detention over and over again, missing valuable class time and developing increasingly negative attitudes.

After much research, I learned that restorative justice programs were lowering suspension and expulsion rates, particularly with at-risk youth. When I became school leader of KIPP Summit in 2009, I decided to try implementing some of those practices. We responded to every misbehavior or infraction as if it were a teaching opportunity, to help the student understand how their behavior impacts a community.

Almost immediately, we began seeing results—fewer students were sent out of class, and students’ reading levels and academic performance improved exponentially. Our KIPPsters felt more in control of their day-to-day lives by taking ownership of their education and setting goals for themselves. A partnership between students and teachers emerged.



Restorative Justice in Action

I remember one of our very first restorative justice sessions. Two of our 7th grade students broke into the school during winter break and graffitied the walls with gang slogans and violent language. Parents and teachers urged me to suspend or expel the students—an appropriate reaction, since most school discipline asks: what crime has been committed?  Who committed it? How will they be punished? But in the restorative paradigm, we ask another set of questions: what happened? Who has been harmed? How will the harm be repaired?

So instead of expelling, I called a conference with the two students, their families, teachers, other students, and parents. Working through a series of restorative justice questions, people shared the fears that this incident had stirred up about school safety and potential gang retaliation. A key component in restorative practices is having the offender(s) play an active role in righting the wrong; together, including the two students, the group decided on a set of consequences. The students completed their tasks, and there was no retaliation or further vandalism. I’m still in touch with one of the students, who’s now a successful senior in high school.


Expanding In Our Region

After seeing how restorative justice has blossomed at KIPP Summit, we’re now expanding those practices throughout KIPP Bay Area schools. As our new Head of Schools, I am working with our Associate Principals and Deans of Students and Culture to bring restorative practices and social-emotional learning to our entire region. All KIPP Bay Area teachers will be trained in restorative practices in the fall of 2015.

Many KIPP leaders have asked me, “If I implement restorative justice, does that replace our focus on character strengths like grit and self-control?” My answer to them is no—they go hand-in-hand. Restorative justice is a way of thinking and being, which fits with KIPP’s emphasis on developing students’ character strengths. Once all of us are invested in our school communities in this way, we cannot help but build a stronger, more positive culture.

As educators, we grapple daily with how to keep students safe, happy, and engaged in learning for the long haul. Restorative justice is a key part of the solution.


Learn more about what it’s like to teach and work at KIPP >