May 25, 2018 12:55 pm

Can ‘restorative justice’ transform school discipline in Philadelphia?

The practice, an extension of criminal justice, repairs harm and resolves personal conflicts constructively, say its supporters at Philadelphia Student Union and T.U.F.F. Girls.

Philadelphia Student Union.

(Photo via

Before the Student Vision for School Safety March its young leaders organized in concurrence with the National School Walkout in March, Philadelphia Student Union outlined a list of demands: expansion of restorative justice, gun control legislation and investing in school counselors and mental health services instead of school police officers.

A week and a half later, Edna Chavez, a 17-year-old youth leader from South Los Angeles, shouted for schools to add restorative justice departments on the March for Our Lives stage in Washington D.C.

Restorative justice, an idea that became more mainstream in the 1970s, is an extension of criminal justice that focuses on repairing harm and resolving a conflict with all the affected individuals or communities. In schools, restorative justice replaces zero-tolerance policies and uses restorative practices to understand, repair and resolve a student conflict or even a student-teacher conflict.

Zero-tolerance policies, such as suspensions and expulsions, lead more students of color and students with disabilities toward the school-to-prison pipeline.

“If there’s a fight or a violent or non-violent issue, typically there’s either in-school detention, out-of-school detention, suspension or expulsion,” said Saudia Durrant, a youth organizer at PSU.

Zero-tolerance policies, such as suspensions and expulsions, lead more students of color and students with disabilities toward the school-to-prison pipeline.

Kendra Brooks, a consultant and instructor for the Bethlehem, Pa.-based International Institute for Restorative Practices, said parents have a lot of power, so she works to help them understand that power and how to use it to change the systems affecting their children.

From our Partners

Brooks also focuses on modeling what restorative justice looks like and how to have a restorative conversation.

“You should take a holistic approach and understand the root causes [of a conflict], whether it’s trauma, whether it’s neglect, attachment issues,” said Brooks, who administers restorative trainings to schools and parents.

Durrant said either an administrator or a student can be a restorative justice mediator for a victim-offender mediation. Example questions for a mediation include:

  • What happened that led to this situation?
  • When this person said this how did that make you feel?
  • What was your reaction?
  • What’s your assessment of your reaction?
  • If this happens again, what do you feel like you would do differently going forward, and why do you think that’s important?
  • Do you commit to go about it differently based on what we’ve assessed?

Durrant said PSU is establishing a restorative justice training program at The Workshop School, a project-based public high school in West Philadelphia, through summer jobs program WorkReady Philadelphia. The program will run for three weeks over the summer, and participants will get a stipend to learn restorative justice skills in order to create a restorative project to present to their schools as new policy.

Going forward, Durrant said PSU will be reaching out to more schools that have access to WorkReady programs or are interested in doing a restorative justice pilot program to train students.

Dr. Mari Morales-Williams, founder and executive director of T.U.F.F. Girls, an arts-based, activism-driven leadership program, also educates local youth about restorative justice and its practices.

"We can't divorce restorative justice from the relationship building or from the political education that's required for us to be more culturally competent individuals or communities."
Dr. Mari Morales-Williams, T.U.F.F. Girls

If schools are adopting restorative justice, Morales-Williams said it shouldn’t just be mediation: At T.U.F.F. Girls, she emphasizes relationship building and political education, which can contextualize the harm repaired by restorative justice through a lens of oppression.

“We can’t divorce restorative justice from the relationship building or from the political education that’s required for us to be more culturally competent individuals or communities,” Morales-Williams said.

During weekly sessions at T.U.F.F. Girls, Black and Latina girls from 11 to 14 years old often participate in workshops on restorative justice.

Morales-Williams said the girls reflect on how society has been taught to understand justice as punishment and it takes a while to reverse that way of thinking.

“What I have seen from the young women, over time, is that they become more empowered, more encouraged to realize there are other options besides punishment,” Morales-Williams said.

Surprisingly, restorative justice training is one of the responsibilities listed for administrators in the School District of Philadelphia’s code of conduct. But Durrant said she thinks there isn’t enough interest from teachers or a mechanism to get interested teachers into trainings.

“There is no system or intentional system to make sure there’s actually people who are trained to instill it,” she said.

Brooks said she hopes to see a serious, district-wide approach to implementing restorative justice.

“It has to be a whole system,” she said, “it has to be everyone working together with mutual respect.”

Morales-Williams said she’s excited to continue coalition building with organizations, like PSU, Youth United for Change and Girls Justice League, as restorative justice is adopted by more schools.

“It’s going to have to take a coalition building effort to make sure that schools that are saying they are expanding restorative justice policies are actually accountable to those policies,” she said, “and accountable to the young people in carrying them out in a way that isn’t harmful or isn’t actually happening.”


Full disclosure: Generocity Editor Julie Zeglen participated in the Fall 2017 cohort of Bread & Roses Community Fund’s Giving Projects, which collectively funded $10,000 grants for several Black-led, Black-centered social justice organizations, including Philadelphia Student Union. That relationship is unrelated to this article.


From our Partners

Advancing Solutions to Philadelphia’s Issues

Tokenism: The State of Youth Leadership in Philadelphia

Designing Our Well-Being


Generocity Philly

Meet Kim Andrews, new executive director for The Fund for Women and Girls



Director of Communications

Apply Now
8033 Germantown Avenue Philadelphia, PA 19118

harp-weaver LLC

Administrative & Grants Associate

Apply Now
Hamilton, NJ

Grounds For Sculpture

Manager of Wellness Programs

Apply Now

Youth Civic Activism is Rocking the Vote in 2023

Moving Beyond Hope

Empowering Healing and Growth: Create Safe Spaces for Young People


Generocity Philly

Be the leader to bring a 26-year mission into the future in Chester County

Central Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Prison Society

Prison Monitoring Manager

Apply Now
Philadelphia, PA

Play On Philly

Director of Education

Apply Now


Bilingual Program Coordinator

Apply Now

Subscribe to Generocity

* indicates required