Restorative Justice through Arts Programs

Restorative Justice through Arts Programs

Restorative Justice through Arts Programs

By Alison Levosky

Executive Summary

Restorative justice in schools has made incredible reductions in student punishment and negative behavior in the classroom, and these programs are necessary particularly for schools that provide education for many students from backgrounds of trauma. Perhaps even more necessary, however, is the inclusion of the arts in these models, for the fuller expression of students’ emotions and experiences. Below is a summary of current restorative justice programs involving drama and theatre, with a proposal of what might potentially be an even more effective restorative justice program based around music.


This policy brief will propose a new program to implement in schools, in order to create and structure music programs in ways that facilitate restorative justice. This program will mirror the ALIVE model used at Metropolitan Business Academy in New Haven, CT, but will use music instead of drama and theatre.


Restorative justice is a crucial practice for schools and administrators to begin to consider, because of the impact of zero tolerance policies in the 1980s and the subsequent perpetuation of the school-to-prison pipeline. Zero tolerance policies – which require “out-of-school suspension or expulsion on the first offense for a variety of behaviors” (Kang-Brown et al., 2013) – leave no room for students to be able to express and explain the larger stresses they might be experiencing outside of school. Many “problem behaviors” in classrooms are a result of stressors completely unrelated to school, and could include unhealthy family relationships or unsafe home situations. If students act out because of those stresses, it makes no sense to punish them, especially when there is no evidence that suspensions or expulsions improve school climate or student behavior (U.S. Department of Education, 2016), and especially when evidence exists that suspensions actually increase rates of delinquency and risk for juvenile justice involvement (Losen et al., 2010). And, discipline practices in schools are often racially disproportionate, which puts some students more at risk than others.

Civil Rights Data Collection
Data Snapshot: School Discipline

Instead of immediately punishing students, a few schools have begun to implement programs focused on restorative justice. Restorative justice, as defined by Fronius et al. (2016), “encompasses a growing social movement to institutionalize peaceful and non-punitive approaches for addressing harm, responding to violations of legal and human rights, and problem solving” (p. 1). One student, who is part of a restorative justice program called Umoja, explained it this way:

“Instead of just getting suspended or getting punished, we work to figure out why this conflict is happening, which keeps students from getting in the same sort of issues. When students work out their issues, they don’t get in fights, they don’t get suspended, and they don’t miss school.” (Restorative Justice, 2017)

Practices involving restorative justice do exactly what they say; they aim to restore students in ways that they have been neglected, in order that they might receive real justice, not unjust punishment for having been through a certain experience. Importantly in this policy brief, the ALIVE model, which was implemented at Metropolitan Business Academy beginning in 2007, will be reviewed as a working model of restorative justice. To understand this model, however, it is crucial to first understand the ideas of Boal and Freire as they relate to the pedagogy and the poetics of the oppressed.

Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator and author who knew firsthand the weight of poverty and hunger especially in reference to education, and in his later years wrote a book called Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972). In this writing, Freire provided a critical look at the education system as the “‘banking’ concept of education” (p. 72), in which teachers provide narration, which is then deposited into students as they perform mechanical memorization. Freire explained that, instead, education should not be so passive, and should create reconciliation in the gap between the ultimate authority of the teachers and the meek submission of the students, so that both are “simultaneously teachers and students” (p. 72). His explanation of the ‘banking’ concept of education is crucial, because not all students can fit into that model. For example, students who are strained by hunger or by poverty cannot just passively sit in a classroom and receive information because they are clearly distracted, but this happens all the time in modern-day classrooms – and students are minimized and penalized instead of being allowed the time they need to reconcile with the teacher and the educational environment.

Later, as Augusto Boal worked with people in Peru to eradicate illiteracy, he based his methodology on Freire’s work. Just as Freire understood that the classroom favored a certain type of learning, Boal understood that the Peruvian government at the time favored a certain type of literacy, and explained that “the illiterate are not people who are unable to express themselves: they are simply people unable to express themselves in a particular language, which in this case is Spanish” (Boal & McBride, 2013, p. 121). The point for Boal was not to enforce a certain language and to erase another, but to use many forms of language to create a fuller method of expression, and for Boal, the best way to do this was through theatre. His goal was to change spectators – what Freire (1972) would call “containers” or “receptacles” (p. 72) – into actors and transformers of the action through their participation in theatre (Boal & McBride, 2013).

Both Freire and Boal point out the disparity between the lower and upper classes, between student and teacher, between impoverished and privileged. They stake the foundation of education on equalizing these positions, that those in the lower status might be raised up to take action in their own lives, and to be in control of their learning. In the same way, the ALIVE program at Metropolitan Business Academy invites students to take an active role in their education and at their school, by “acknowledging students’ lived experiences” which often involve some kind of trauma (Sajnani & Johnson, 2014, p. 210), and by involving drama therapy which allows children to explore “new and effective ways of coping” with traumatic situations (p. 213).

Specifically, the ALIVE Humanities Course at the school models this kind of learning, where a drama therapist and a teacher come together for this required freshman course in order to “offer adolescents a forum for an honest exchange of ideas and open conversation about emergent, high interest, and universal topics including identity, community, conflict, and peace-building” (Sajnani & Johnson, 2014, p. 217). The classroom includes assessments through many different styles of learning, including journals and writing, role-plays, artistic projects, and group projects, and uses theatre games and acting and other forms of art to elicit and communicate these important conversations. In this way, as Boal and Freire would model, the students are brought into the classroom on equal footing with their teachers, and are allowed the space they need to communicate the traumas they may have experienced, as well as the daily life events that affect them. And this is the beginning of restorative justice – allowing students to express themselves in languages they can better understand and communicate through, so that they do not feel the need to act out and therefore receive punishment for inappropriate behaviors in the classroom.

Students are also encouraged to reflect on Miss Kendra’s List, posted in every classroom, in order that they might feel safe, and that they might know what sorts of experiences should not be normalized. They are also encouraged to write letters to Miss Kendra about any worries they might have, and this helps teachers and counselors to know what kinds of experiences their students might be having after school. Miss Kendra (the staff at the school) writes back to the children to support them both emotionally and academically. Examples are shown below.

A natural question is, then, does this work? Does restorative justice actually change students’ behavior in the classroom? Does it change suspension rates? According to individual data from a number of schools implementing restorative justice programs across the country, it does. Below, data shows that over five years, suspensions and serious fights were significantly reduced, notably after the implementation of the ALIVE Humanities Course in 2008 (Sajnani & Johnson, 2014).

This is particularly crucial, because the results of a survey of Metropolitan Business Academy students in 2011 (below) showed significant stressors outside of school for many students, but between the end of 2011 and the end of 2012, suspensions and physical fighting were significantly reduced in the school.

Sajnani & Johnson, 2014

Metropolitan Business Academy is not the only school that has successfully implemented some form of restorative justice practice. One blog lists a number of successful schools including Oakland Unified School District, Ypislanti High, and Glenview Elementary School (Davis, 2013). Here, Edwina Smith explains the importance of her dialogue circles in setting the classroom environment and creating a setting for restorative justice.

Most data in these schools are similar, with a significant drop in suspension rates after a few years of implementing the restorative justice program. One example is Hampstead Hill, a PreK-8 school in Maryland which implemented restorative practices beginning in January 2008. Below, data shows the significant decrease in suspensions and office referrals, as a result of those practices.

Restorative justice is clearly effective, and particularly so with the involvement of drama therapeutic practices in the ALIVE model at Metropolitan Business Academy. On a baseline level, restorative justice practices are good for schools and for students, shown through quantitative and qualitative evidence, as well as anecdotal evidence.

In light of the effect that drama therapy has had for students in the classroom, it is natural to wonder if other arts might have similar or even better effects as part of a program of restorative justice. There is perhaps even less data on restorative justice music programs than theatre programs, but there is a variety of research on the ways that participating in music has a number of the same effects – at least outside the classroom. For example, choral singing within a prison context, coupled with specific restorative pedagogies, has been shown to humanize and heal those involved (Cohen & Duncan, 2015), and a Canadian organization called Arts Health Network had a conference in 2012 exploring the performing arts and restorative justice, which made new ground in “supporting those made vulnerable by conflict as well as by engaging the community in reframing the performance of justice” (Music and Transformation, 2012). One proposal for more quantitative research on music therapy reviewed research to show the benefits of music therapy, including “mood improvement, self expression, catharsis, facilitating grieving, relaxation, reflection, socialization, community building, stress reduction, and more” (Garrido et al., 2015). In these very broad terms, it is clear that at least in some cases, music can facilitate justice for people in many of the same ways that theatre does, and therefore it would be helpful to see if a restorative justice program based around music could reduce suspension rates and serious fights in schools in the same way that the ALIVE model does for Metropolitan Business Academy.

For a school that chooses to begin a music restorative justice program, the first step will be to create a classroom environment conducive to implementing any kind of restorative justice program. Ideally, high school administrators would begin by creating a mandatory class for incoming students, similar to the required humanities course in the ALIVE model, so that this experience would be one that is common to all students at the school. This is certainly a difficult first step, as it might require restructuring of time, schedules, and teachers, but without this initial shift, the school will be unable to provide this form of restorative justice. Also, this program should not simply take place in the current music classrooms at the school, first because it would not reach all students, and second because music education has a very different focus than music as restorative justice, though there is certainly overlap.

Next, a music therapist ought to be hired, so that he or she can work in tandem with a current teacher to create a space that allows students to explore musically and non-musically their feelings, their experiences of life, and their expression of emotions. This music therapist should have experience with a number of different instruments and with singing, so that he or she can quickly adapt to the mood and emotions of the students through the music.

The first part of the class would be taken up by a time of sharing, so that students could have time to explore the events of the previous day with their classmates, and to bring up any conflict they might have felt in the classroom or with another student. As those conversations progress, the teacher and music therapist can guide the student with questions like “What sounds might you make to help your friend know what you are feeling?” or “What song would you sing to show how you are feeling?” As the conversation deepened, the instructors might find ways for the students to improvise or write a song about their experiences, and maybe even to present those songs to the people who they found themselves in conflict with – depending, of course, on the content. The program might also want to include something like the letters to Miss Kendra, but in the form of song instead. This might be an even fuller form of expression for students than just writing notes, and could be anything from a letter to a poem to a set of song lyrics to an actual song they could record and “send” to the equivalent of Miss Kendra.
The class would culminate in an optional recital, filled with the compositions and expressions of the students over the course of the year – song lyrics, music, poetry, or anything else the students had created that they felt they wanted to share with their classmates. If students chose not to participate in the performance of their own creations, the music therapist could perform on their behalf, or if the students felt very creative, they could form a group to sing or play or their compositions, and direct the group in how to do it.

Anticipated Results
Hopefully, results of a program like this one would show lowered suspension rates and serious fights in the same way that the ALIVE model did. Also, though, it would be interesting to see if a restorative justice program based on music would significantly change school culture. If all students were required to take part in the class and the expression through music, and if some students were able to share their music with their peers, perhaps the school itself would feel safer and more like home, with a baseline of song running through its doors each day.

One possible limitation would be that music is not the same for everyone. It certainly has individual effects on people, but some of those effects might be stronger or weaker than others. Additionally, these restorative justice programs take time to implement; students are not always receptive right away, and it is important that schools wait at least a few years to begin to see results.

In a world where justice is often perverted, and where children go through experiences they do not deserve, it is crucial to begin implementing programs like the one proposed to make students feel safe, welcome, and cared for within the walls of their school buildings, and to make sure students are not punished for the traumas they experience outside of school. For this reason, administrators and teachers must carefully consider their school environments, and should implement music-based restorative justice programs like the one described above in order to create schools where students are restored and not punished.

I would like to thank Julie Zhu, Brian Pok, and Stephanie Addenbrooke for their presence in our class this semester and for our gif-filled group text (mostly thanks to Steph for that). I would also like to thank Edgar Avina and Lindsay Efflandt for their edits, and Mira Debs for her guidance.

Works Cited

Boal, A., & McBride, C. A. (2013). Theatre of the Oppressed. New York City, NY: Theatre Communications Group.

Civil Rights Data Collection Data Snapshot: School Discipline (pp. 1-23, Issue brief No. 1). (2014). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

Cohen, M. L., & Duncan, S. P. (2015). Behind Different Walls: Restorative Justice, Transformative Justice, and Their Relationship to Music Education. The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education, 1-16. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199356157.013.64

Davis, M. (2013, October 04). Restorative Justice: Resources for Schools. Retrieved April 30, 2017, from

Freire, P., & Ramos, M. B. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Sheed and Ward.

Fronius, T., Persson, H., Guckenburg, S., Hurley, N., & Petrosino, A. 2016. Restorative Justice in US Schools. San Francisco, CA: West Ed Justice and Prevention Research Center.

Garrido, S., Baker, F. A., Davidson, J. W., Moore, G., & Wasserman, S. (2015). Music and trauma: the relationship between music, personality, and coping style. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00977

Kang-Brown, J., Trone, J., Fratello, J., & Daftary-Kapur, T. (2013, December). A Generation Later: What We’ve Learned about Zero Tolerance in Schools. Retrieved April 27, 2017, from

Losen, D., Hodson, C., Keith, M., II, Morrison, K., & Belway, S. (2010). Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap? Retrieved April 28, 2017, from

Music and Transformation: The Performing Arts and Restorative Justice. (2012, October 25). Retrieved April 30, 2017, from

Sajnani, N., & Johnson, D. R. (2014). Trauma-informed drama therapy: transforming clinics, classrooms, and communities. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, Ltd.

U.S. Department of Education. (2016, November 22). School Climate and Discipline. Retrieved April 28, 2017, from