This is a guest post by Jeff Reiser, a JUFJ leader in Montgomery County.
There has been a significant increase in hate and bias incidents in our county, including antisemitic ones. As a Jewish resident with Jewish children attending Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), I know that MCPS needs to address these incidents. As a school psychologist, I know the power of restorative justice practices and how they can be a valuable tool in addressing antisemitic acts and other incidents that do harm in MCPS. Therefore, Montgomery County must prioritize improving school safety and school culture by investing in restorative justice, including increasing funding in the county budget for staffing and funding this powerful tool.
First adopted by MCPS in 2019, restorative justice teaches kids to mend relationships when harm has occurred, instead of punishing them and removing them from school. When implemented effectively, restorative justice allows those who have been harmed to feel heard and to voice what they need to be made whole, while simultaneously allowing those who have caused harm to better understand the impact of their actions and work towards repair. Restorative justice allows even those who have done wrong to remain part of the community while allowing all students to feel cared for, safe, and supported.
Restorative justice represents the only alternative to punitive methods like suspension. There are extreme situations that do not allow for the use of restorative justice, such as when a student presents an imminent, significant safety threat. However, restorative justice practices do not preclude MCPS officials from applying fair or reparative consequences. Restorative justice practices do not even preclude suspending a student to give MCPS staff time to put a plan in place to protect classmates from further harm. They only preclude counterproductive consequences that do little to address the harm that was experienced. Research shows that removing a student from school does not typically lead to improved behavior and is instead associated with worse outcomes. In addition, the fact that school administrators disproportionately assign such disciplinary consequences to students of color further emphasizes the importance of attempting all efforts to handle behavioral incidents in a way that does not involve interrupting a student’s education. By contrast, studies on the impact of properly implemented restorative justice programs show significantly improved student ratings of school climate, higher graduation rates, and lower dropout rates.
As a new school year begins and Montgomery County leaders begin to plan for next year’s budget, we urge MCPS to invest in funding dedicated restorative justice specialists and increasing training for everyone involved in the program. And, more importantly, school administrators must see restorative justice not as a mere add-on, but as an integral component of their work to protect and nurture our students. A school culture that prioritizes restorative justice is a school culture where everyone feels safe and supported and where everyone has the opportunity to flourish.