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AFT webinar emphasizes ‘restorative justice’

Last week, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) presented various webinars during their annual “Share My Lesson” virtual conference, supposedly to discuss lesson plans and curriculum ideas. Instead, attendees learned about topics like “misinformation,” “self-care,” or in this case, the progressive education model called “restorative justice.”

Restorative justice is when teachers do not implement a zero-tolerance disciplinary policy, but bring all affected students and staff together to “heal the harm to relationships as much as possible,” as the University of San Diego noted. It is also called a “community-oriented approach that involves all stakeholders finding a solution.”

During a webinar entitled, “Self-Care and Communal Care for Ourselves and Our Students,” two co-hosts talked at length about how teachers can take time to lessen stress, take care of oneself, and not punish students according to past standards.

Dionne Grayman, strategic partnerships director at the Morningside Center, and her co-host, fellow Morningside Center staff developer Nicole Lavonne Smith-Johnson, talked about “self-care” for overworked and emotionally exhausted teachers and not disciplining students according to outdated standards.

Smith-Johnson discussed “restorative practices” (i.e. restorative justice practices) of self-care, which is “this idea of slowing down and it is very much in opposition to how we move in schools and how the school system is structured.” She said that restorative practices allow teachers to be proactive and “highlights the importance of unlearning the harmful practices” of the current public education system. 

There was little discussion about maintaining discipline in the classroom, which has become a major issue for teachers as the number of misbehaving students is on the rise. Instead, the co-hosts spoke about restorative justice practices that do not emphasize discipline or punishment, but communal discussions to erase bad feelings.

AFT promotes restorative justice as a necessary tool for teachers but hesitates to admit the shortcomings of these practices. The teachers union claims that restorative justice practices “focus on repairing harm, addressing community needs, and building and sustaining healthy relationships.”

In contrast, the National Education Association (NEA) acknowledges that there is “more mixed or inconclusive” evidence about restorative justice’s positive effects on student development and school climate.

Many teachers are unsupportive of restorative justice. In a recent survey of AFFT members, over 76% said they do not “support using restorative practices in the classroom.”

AFFT Ambassador, Rochelle Porto, stated that she left the teachers union a decade ago because unions did not tolerate different opinions on issues like restorative justice. In her experience, the unions openly support one-sided political theory and progressive ideology, which is disruptive not only in society but also in schools. 

In her district’s current teacher’s contract, it states that the union “shall provide teachers with training and professional development related to restorative justice and other best practices keeping children safe.” Rochelle said, “I guess unions need to show some ‘return’ on the money they collect from teachers for union dues, and if the goal is to rethink schools, then this would be one goal for the union which says it represents teachers.” 

Rochelle believes that teachers care about educating children to face the future and live in a civil and just society. With reading and math test scores dropping annually, unions’ professional development programs should be focused on teaching phonetics-based reading, financial literacy and creating a safe environment for all students. 

She added, “Progressive political ideology and progressive professional development programs, like restorative justice, as their mission show how out of touch the union is with teachers and why they teach.”

At least one state is planning to reverse restorative justice practices in their schools. In Nevada, state lawmakers and the governor are looking to repeal specific provisions in a 2019 law that imposed restorative justice on the state’s public schools. In an education committee hearing, teachers argued that the 2019 law, which removed punishment such as expulsions or suspensions for misbehavior, was a “complete failure.”

“It’s not working, and there’s no accountability,” an elementary school teacher said, “It’s not fair that a student can walk into a classroom and be violent and disruptive without any consequences.” Another elementary school teacher told the committee that classroom disruptions due to misbehavior affected her students, “When children feel unsafe in school, they can’t focus, their attendance and their grades begin to drop.”

Even the Nevada teachers’ union, the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA), and its county affiliate, the Clark County Education Association (CCEA), acknowledged that restorative justice has to be curtailed. CCEA President Marie Neisess said, “This legislation was passed with the right intentions, but four years later the lack of resources and proper implementation has only contributed to the crisis of violence in our schools today… We believe these changes need to be made.”

Teachers in Newport News, Virginia blamed restorative justice for creating an unsafe environment for teachers, which may have been a factor when a six-year-old shot at and injured an elementary school teacher.

Studies of public schools in Maine and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania found that restorative justice did not change school environments for the better. The Maine study found “no difference in school climate between middle schools that tried restorative justice and those that didn’t,” while the Pittsburgh study discovered “the academic performance of middle schoolers actually worsened at schools that tried restorative justice.”

Still, AFT continues to push these practices in the name of fairness and equity as a one-size-fits-all approach. But these practices can make life more difficult for teachers, who are hamstrung when it comes to enforcing discipline in the classroom.

Spencer Irvine

Spencer Irvine is Senior Writer & Researcher at Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Spencer previously worked in state government, in communications for a non-profit advocacy organization, and held various administrative and communications roles at a media analysis organization. He has a master’s degree in public administration from George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Brigham Young University. He lives in Arizona with his wife, is an avid history buff and enjoys touring historic sites.