Restorative justice: shifting from a culture of control to a culture of caring

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Senn High peer jury.

File photo by Jason Reblando

Senn High peer jury.

The Embrace Restorative Justice in Schools Collaborative is writing this letter in response to the concerns expressed in a recent Chicago Tribune article regarding teachers’ complaints about the district’s revised discipline policy. We begin by quoting Michael Brunson of the Chicago Teachers Union, who was quoted as saying, “Here’s the problem–it’s difficult to go from a zero-tolerance mentality to a restorative justice mentality because it’s a whole different way of looking at things. To really do restorative justice, there have to be certain things in place.” Embrace could not agree more.

The collaborative is a diverse group of restorative justice supporters, experts, practitioners, academics, and community leaders working together with CPS with the mission of expanding this strategy in schools in a holistic, sustainable manner. Most in our collaborative have over 10 years of experience.

What we know to be true and what we recommend:

  • That each school have a specially-trained, full-time restorative justice dean who can provide structural guidance, training, and encouragement to work toward a fully restorative school.
  • That ALL school staff are fully trained and ‘buy-in’ before using restorative justice with students.
  • That multiple restorative justice practices are used in the classroom and throughout the school, designating a safe space to hold peace circles.
  • That resources are found and allocated with an understanding that a shift in the culture takes time and requires a holistic, comprehensive approach to implementation of restorative justice in our schools.
  • That such a shift requires fundamental changes in the way all in a school environment function; most specifically how we respond to one another both individually and collectively.
  • To sustain restorative justice, it must not be reactionary, only focused on conflict; rather it should be proactive and preventative, focused on building relationships and a sense of belonging which prevents conflicts

When these steps are taken, then the restorative justice philosophy is values- based. Fostering the values of dignity, humanity, respect, inclusiveness, responsibility and mutual well-being has led school districts across the world to experience improved learning environments, fewer conflicts and stronger academic results.

CPS is making efforts to reduce suspensions and expulsions–which have disproportionally affected students of color–and has spearheaded revisions to the Student Code of Conduct. CPS is working to change the failed zero tolerance policies that have put Chicago youth on a path to prison.

In addition to our recommendations, if a commitment to a more lasting sense of safety through restorative justice is to be realized, dollars will need to be shifted from CPS’s safety and security budget, which emphasizes physical security in schools, to the much smaller budget for social and emotional Learning, which takes a holistic approach to supporting children’s safety and well-being. We understand shifting deep-set attitudes is challenging, which is why more commitment and support is needed to turn the tide.

In order for our colleagues at CPS to take this opportunity to truly dismantle the pipeline and change the trajectory for our young people, much needs to happen. Using the restorative justice philosophy as the vehicle to shift the paradigm at schools from a culture of control to a culture of caring is possible. This will take time but working together with proper resources and support from schools, communities and young people, success is possible.

The Embrace Restorative Justice in Schools Collaborative includes: The Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice at the Adler School of Professional Psychology; Alternatives, Inc., Andrew Tonachel, Austin Peace Center, COFI/ POWER-PAC, Community for Justice Youth Institute, Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice (IBARJ), the Juvenile Justice and Child Protection Resource Section of the Circuit Court of Cook County, the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation at Roosevelt University, Nehemiah Project, Youth Service Project​, Pamela Purdie, Strengthening Chicago’s Youth (convened by Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago), Governors State University and the Umoja Student Development Corporation                                    


  • Concerned Parent

    with Rahm in – there will be no money for this – RestJust will go down in CPS as history as more of a pr ploy, anything to reduce bad stats.