On Our Terms
On Our Terms is a critical participatory action research (CPAR) project built by students, parents, educators, and activists about what it takes to nurture restorative justice culture, collective safety, and healing in schools.
Critical participatory action research is rooted in the beliefs that:
- We are all experts on our own lives and we should have a say in guiding the research and policy that directly impacts us.
- Diverse skills and knowledge makes research stronger, more relevant, and more useful for confronting real world problems.
- Research should drive action and support social movements; we are not interested in research for research’s sake.
- We must consider how power and privilege play out in our research, and in the research team–paying attention to the structural dynamics that shape our daily lives.
And in the context of this project, there is a deep resonance between restorative justice and CPAR. Both center relationship building, see conflict as a learning opportunity, value democratic participation and the need to think about transformation at both individual and systemic levels.
After years of relentless organizing, the movement for restorative justice has been gaining momentum in schools and education policy across the country. This represents a departure from a decades-long national trend of schools relying on surveillance, securitization, and “zero-tolerance” suspensions, expulsions–and even arrests–as disciplinary measures. These policies had devastating consequences, with research documenting many harmful outcomes for suspended students: worse academic performance, higher rates of dropout/pushout, and increased likelihood of future involvement with the criminal legal system, contributing to what’s commonly referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline” (STPP). With disproportionately high rates of suspension for Black, Latinx, and Native American students, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, and English Language Learners, these young people shoulder the burden of these harmful approaches to school discipline. At the same time, suspension is not shown to increase safety in the broader school community, decrease student misbehavior, or lead to academic gains for non-suspended students.
It is with this backdrop of advocacy and research that policymakers have increased focus on decreasing school exclusion and promoting non-punitive approaches to school conflict.
Many of these policy efforts have included a call to expand restorative justice–a central demand for many education justice activists. With roots in certain Indigenous practices, restorative justice is a relational approach to conflict with the goals of addressing root causes of conflict, repairing harm, and fostering democratic, collective forms of accountability. A growing body of research suggests that restorative justice enhances school climate and student engagement, and decreases fighting, bullying, and suspensions.
Long before its recent rise in popularity, pockets of educators, youth and parent activists, and community organizers were already growing restorative practice in schools—even if not by name, and often at odds with official disciplinary policies. Their push for restorative justice has always been just one part of a broader fight for educational justice and building affirming, supportive, and liberatory spaces of learning for all young people. And notably, the recent policy shifts do not address advocacy demands to divest from police and surveillance measures (metal detectors, cameras) in schools, which are key drivers of the school-to-prison pipeline. So, for them, the movement of restorative justice from the margins into formal education policy is both a cause for celebration and anxiety.
On Our Terms emerges from this moment of tension and possibility. Restorative Justice Initiative, together with Teachers Unite, the Public Science Project, and The Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York set out to build a critical participatory action research project with deep roots in citywide educational justice organizing and restorative school communities.
This project is our way of taking back the conversation about restorative justice and safety in schools, to ensure that the students, educators, and parents who have been building this work all along are at the center of decision-making about educational policy and practice. What would restorative justice and healing-centered schools look like, if they were “on our terms?”