Blog Global Health Center

We know the school-to-prison pipeline is a public health crisis, so why is restorative justice disparate from health justice?

Written by Floriana Milazzo, MPH candidate at Columbia University, New York and participant in the 2021 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

Floriana in her graduation gown, on the campus of Columbia University.

I hope to teach at some point in my career. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how we can use public health to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

Suspensions leave students unsupervised. Oftentimes, they fall behind. They disengage. Eventually, they drop out. These factors compound to increase their likelihood of court involvement. This widespread phenomenon constitutes the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The school-to-prison pipeline is a public health crisis: it exacerbates health inequity by being a product of and perpetrator of racism. According to the ACLU, under-resourced schools have increased police presence and zero-tolerance discipline policies to impose order. These policies disproportionately take students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students out of classrooms and place them in the criminal justice system. Education is a crucial determinant of health, and depriving marginalized students of it widens pre-existing health disparities.

To eradicate this pipeline, restorative justice has become a “buzz solution.” Rather than pushing marginalized students away, restorative justice aims to repair harm and restore relationships, through talking spaces where teachers invite students to join conversations, empathize, and take responsibility for their actions.

But what are we “restoring?”

Despite its linguistic appeal, numerous studies question the effectiveness of restorative justice. A large-scale, randomized control trial study of restorative justice in Pittsburgh schools found that restorative justice had no significant impact on student arrests. At schools that implemented restorative justice, math achievement declined significantly, especially for Black students. These findings may reflect failed attempts at cultural competency that silence students.

Placating ourselves with the comforting rhetoric of restorative justice but disregarding evidence of its effectiveness is an injustice. By espousing restorative justice as a solution, we treat the immediate symptom —student “misbehavior”— and neglect the disease that breeds it: health inequity.

We must reimagine restorative justice as an extension of health justice.

Health justice exists at the intersection of social justice and health. Health justice is accessible, equitable, and sustainable care that erodes racist systems underpinning the social determinants of health. In schools, health justice can work to ensure students have access to care and resources necessary to achieve the best health (and thus, educational) outcomes.

With a health justice reframing, school-based restorative justice becomes a structural public health intervention, mandating a (re)allocation of resources to community health organizations. Many children in marginalized communities pulled into restorative justice circles suffer adverse childhood experiences and have disproportionate pressing mental health needs. Health justice would seek to remediate these disparities by directing students to treatment and resources to heal undiagnosed and underlying mental health conditions that cause poor performance and misbehavior.

Incorporating health justice in restorative justice encourages leveraging initiatives already occurring and invites stakeholders beyond the school system to lead. School-based restorative justice becomes a launching point to connect the student with resources such as mental health counselors and other health organizations.

When restorative justice ends with facilitators holding “talking spaces,” it is exclusion in disguise. We restore a failing system. When restorative justice is an extension of health justice, it is transformative. We sustainably heal.