Whole-School Restorative Justice and Substance Use

Whole-School Restorative Justice (RJ) is a multi-tiered approach, guided by principles of engagement, individual and mutual responsibility, and restoration. These principles provide a lens to examine school climate and culture as well as a school community’s response to when things go wrong. Effective implementation of RJ practices have been shown to improve school climate, culture, and academic performance; they have reduced behavioral referrals, suspensions and expulsions.[i] Below is a brief description of the three tiers of the whole school RJ approach with a focus on substance use prevention and responding to substance use in schools.

Tier I: Build and Strengthen Relationships

RJ on tier one is focused on building relationships, community, and a sense of belonging throughout the school. Many teachers and schools engage in efforts to build relationship and a sense of belonging with students in a variety of ways. RJ provides a framework and practices to support and enhance these efforts. Beneficial outcomes associated with students’ sense of connection, belonging, and being part of the school community are well documented.[ii] Research repeatedly finds that youth who report high levels of connection to their school are less likely to binge drink or use drugs in young adulthood.[iii] “School-wide restructuring efforts emphasizing bonding between students and the school” have the greatest impact on preventing substance abuse.[iv]

Tier II: Repair Relationships

Rather than focus on punitive and exclusionary discipline responses to a rule or law violation, RJ at this tier uses processes to understand who was affected and how, their needs, and to develop plans to address them. The aim is to repair relationships when things have gone wrong. In terms of substance use, screening, brief intervention, and referral to assessment helps determine needs of the person using. RJ practices help us understand the needs of others affected, repair relationships, and plan to make things right. In a school, this promotes a sense of support and caring, which in turn reinforces the sense of connection and belonging.

Tier III: Welcome and Re-entry

When someone returns to school due to a discipline response—including substance use—the focus is typically on compliance via a threat of exclusion. RJ at this tier is focused on:

  • Welcoming the student back into the community
  • Engagement in the community and creating a sense of belonging,
  • Identifying supports and resources—defined by the person returning—to address needs and to prevent it from happening in the future.

The aim of tier three is to take an acute incident that often fractures relationships and an individual’s sense of belonging and effectively repair and rebuild relationships so that everyone feels part of the classroom or school community.


[i] Kidde, J (2016) Restorative Justice in School: Outcomes and Indicators. http://www.greenomegal3c.org/category/restorative-justice/

[ii] See the following selected publications for further discussion:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009) School Connectedness: Strategies for Increasing Protective Factors Among Youth. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Resnick, M., et. al. (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. Journal of the American Medical Association, 278(10), 823–832.

Hawkins, J., et. al. (1999). Preventing adolescent health-risk behaviors by strengthening protection during childhood. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 153, 226–234.

Battistich, V., & Hom, A. (1997). The relationship between students’ sense of their school as a community and their involvement in problem behaviors. American Journal of Public Health, 87(12), 1997–2001.

Schaps, E., Battistich, V., & Solomon, D. (1997). School as a caring community: A key to character. In A. Molnar (Ed.), The construction of children’s character. Ninety-sixth yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education (pp. 127–139). Chicago: National Society for the Study of Education.

[iii] Sacks, V., Moore, K., Terzian, M., Constance, N. (2014) School Policies, School Connection, and Adolescents: What Predicts Young Adult Substance Use? Research Brief. http://www.childtrends.org

[iv] Greenberg, M. et. al. (June/July 2003) Enhancing School-Based Prevention and Youth Development Through Coordinated Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. American Psychologist Vol. 58, No. 6/7, 466–474