Edwards helps district address disparities in discipline through restorative practice study

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Investigation aims to inform policy and practice related to punishment in schools

Erica Edwards

Erica Edwards, Ph.D., assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies, is on a mission. She is engaged in a research study about restorative practices and hopes her findings will encourage educators and policymakers to reconsider the use of suspensions and expulsions.

Edwards received a $35,000 grant for a Restorative Practice Integration Study. Its purpose is to help reduce racial disparities in suspension and expulsion within a small suburban Detroit school district. Using a restorative circle methodology through a critical race theoretical lens, Edwards will work with K-12 teachers, school social workers, deans of culture, behavioral support staff and central office leadership to grow in critical consciousness regarding the centrality of race in their own experiences, workplace practices and students’ lives. The project’s goals are to reduce racial disparities in school discipline across the district, increase color-blind awareness and heal aspects of racial trauma as they play out in participants’ lives and workplace practices, and empower participants to fully utilize and promote restorative practices within their spheres of influence. 

The study’s orientation to research through the use of critical race theory ensures that the role of race and the functioning of racism are not obscured or overlooked by other structural factors causing the issue. In addition, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires that districts closely monitor and address areas of educational inequity.    

“This project could inform both policy and practice in real time as it relates to racial disparities in school punishment referral,” said Edwards. “The goal is to help educational leaders and policy-makers understand the benefits of reducing or eliminating suspensions and expulsions. Our hope is that educational leaders across many spheres of influence will be provided with empirical evidence to support changing their disciplinary philosophies and practices in ways that promote the well-being of minoritized students.”

Initial results reveal a number of issues within the district that make it difficult for educational leaders to use restorative practices. These barriers include misunderstanding of the philosophical orientation of restorative practice, particularly among school leaders who are best positioned to ensure that restorative practices are integrated into schools and classrooms. As a result — and consistent with the literature — researchers found that restorative practices are often used in tandem with punitive disciplinary practices. They did not find significant differences in disciplinary outcomes between the baseline and year one referral outcomes. To address this, investigators received funding for a second year to expand their existing work through a participatory action research design. Research participants will work collaboratively to develop contextually specific solutions to integrate and monitor restorative practices in their classrooms, work duties and schools. 

“Studying restorative practices is a relatively recent development in educational research. As a result, there is a great deal to learn about how to implement them well and their effect on disciplinary outcomes,” said Edwards. “Given that minoritized populations are disproportionately negatively affected by school punishment referral, understanding educational leaders’ experiences with restorative practices — and the benefits, challenges and outcomes — will provide a greater understanding of how this alternative approach may cultivate healthy school cultures and climates.”