During the 2019 Nevada Legislative session, law makers decided to include language that requires schools to provide a “plan of action based on restorative justice before expelling a pupil.” The statutes requiring this plan went into effect July 1 of this year and school districts across the state are scrambling to comply with the law. 

Officials stated the challenge for the district is the language and complexity of the laws with minimal understanding of how to implement a restorative justice program and little time to review before it became law. 

Nailing down a definition is the first problem. 

“What's it mean — restorative discipline?” Humboldt County School District Director of Education Opportunity Deanna Owens asked during the update she presented to the school district’s board of trustees. “We're all still really kinda wrapping our heads around this. In simplest terms.... Rather than sending a student home for fighting, we would probably sit down and talk with them ... 'what are some other options besides throwing a swing,' so it's a teaching piece to restore relationships.”

The Nevada statute definition of restorative justice is “nonpunitive intervention and support provided by the school to a pupil to improve the behavior of the pupil and remedy and any harm caused by the pupil.”

In a follow-up email, Owens said the philosophy of restorative justice is to repair harmed relationships. “The approach that restorative justice takes is to offer the offender the opportunity to make amends for 'wrongdoing.' It makes the assumption that wrong doing hurts people, communities, relationships etc. RJ is essentially a movement in response to a few decades of zero tolerance policies for offenses like fighting. Much data has been offered that this type of approach particularly hurt young African American males as their rate of suspension and expulsion was markedly higher than other demographic groups.”

Advocates of restorative justice say the practice provides student offenders with an opportunity to be held accountable to those they have harmed by offering them the chance to repair the harm. They say such practices promote school safety by fostering relationships and taking responsibility for the well-being of its members. Advocates also say it engages students’ positive social skills while building strengths.

Researchers have identified several reasons why schools and districts are more frequently embracing restorative justice practices, including the following:

•  Zero-tolerance policies have led to larger numbers of youths being suspended or expelled with no evidence of positive impact on school safety.

•  There is racial/ethnic disparity in what youths receive school punishments and how severe their punishments are, even when controlling for the type of offense.

• More school misbehavior is being handed over to the police particularly with programs that have police in schools, such as School Resource Officer, leading to more youth getting involved with official legal systems — thus contributing to a trend toward a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Owens wrote in the email that restorative justice was a new topic in Nevada. Apparently, it is a new area of student engagement as well. In 2019, the Justice & Prevention Research Center and WestEd published an updated review of the research on restorative justice in U.S. schools. Researchers of the report stated that “Although these descriptive accounts do not bear on the question of whether [restorative justice] “works,” they provide valuable information that should be considered, particularly by those attempting to implement RJ in their school settings. These descriptive reports take many forms and include student and faculty testimonials, case-by-case anecdotes, and the opinions given by community members. Each of these reports provides firsthand accounts of the perceived effectiveness of [restorative justice] in school.”

Owens told the trustees that the district has received little guidance from the Nevada Department of Education (NDE) on restorative justice principles. 

Owens told the trustees that the district is waiting for guidance on what a restorative plan looks like. “We were better poised than a lot of other districts to move forward [with restorative justice practices]. However, … we are waiting for examples of restorative justice plans. So far, we haven't received those. Part of the bill is one or more.” But, she says, the district has been proactive about seeking assistance. She said the district has invited Ann Alexander, an attorney who specializes in special education, to talk about AB168 and the best way to implement it until the district gets more guidance from the state.

Even with no guidance from NDE, Owens said the district will continue to move forward.  “We're doing the best we can to follow [the laws] with the information we have,” she said.