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Abstract

The study uses a qualitative comparative case study design to study the adoption, implementation and integration of restorative justice in education (RJE) in public high schools as a remedy to the growing school-to-prison pipeline. Such zero-tolerance, exclusionary policies that dominate schools today adopt punitive tactics towards handling matters of conflict and justice within schools. The retributive approach is gaining harsh criticism as it disproportionately impacts minority youth and criminalizes student behavior. RJE along with other Social Emotional Learning (SEL) approaches is gaining traction within schools as a means of humanizing school environments and emphasizing a student centered perspective. Drawing on human service organizational theoretical frameworks, namely institutional entrepreneurship, innovation implementation, ambiguity-conflict model of policy implementation and diffusion of innovation, this study seeks to expand knowledge on RJE by providing a more critical examination of whether RJE has moved from a more marginal status towards becoming mainstream or standardized practices at schools. The study has a particular focus on the partnerships with community-based organizations (CBOs) many high schools form in order to carry out this work. ,The study adopts a two-phased purposively sampled approach conducted over a period of a year. The primary mode of data collection comprised of conducting face-to-face semi-structured interviews with program managers of CBOs (n=10), central district personnel (n=3), which constitutes the first phase, and multiple school personnel across four high schools (n=60), which constitutes the second phase. Using the AtlasTi software, verbatim transcripts of audio-recorded interviews were analyzed using an inductive and deductive coding scheme. Additional sources such as school discipline data, observations, contract documents and other media sources were examined for data triangulation purposes. ,The findings highlight the critical role played by CBOs to bring about RJE adoption at both the policy level as well as the local schools. However post RJE reform at the policy level, the role and the agency of the CBOs have diminished as evidenced in my findings. Despite the RJE seed being planted by CBOs at schools, the principals make the ultimate adoption decisions about catalyzing RJE reform within schools. Successful implementation of RJE within schools includes three main factors: leadership, effective communication on RJE programming and invigorating a positive school culture. Schools which diffuse and institutionalize RJE as a part of SEL compared to schools that integrate RJE as a part of discipline are more likely to be contributing to the care ethos and nurturing healthy school cultures. However, such a contribution has not redefined the notion of policing and justice within schools, as the study finds traces of the retributive approach still operational within these schools. ,Using the various organizational theoretical frameworks I argue that there are five critical aspects that have come in the way of RJE reform dole out. Firstly, there is a discrepancy in RJE policy vis a vis practice because the CPS Central District Office is using coercive tactics and mandating the use of RJE within schools, which has resulted in resistance to RJE. Secondly, precarity of school-CBO partnerships are playing out largely because of resource dependency issues of CBOs who have lost their ability to effect change beyond adoption. Thirdly, findings highlight the constant state of urban flux in operation at these schools such as drastic leadership changes, staff attrition, neighborhood gentrification amongst others, which has made embedding RJE into the fabric of schools very challenging. Principals have emerged as being very crucial to the RJE change process, since they are contending with both policy level actors as well as CBOs to continue to inspire their own personnel to implement and institutionalize RJE reform. Finally, especially at the local school level personnel appear to be more misinformed about the key components of RJE, thus training efforts need to be reoriented with fidelity and quality control in mind. Thereby, RJE has definitely moved away from the margins but it is still not the mainstream practice at schools. RJE has failed to upkeep its promise and potential especially towards marginalized, communities of color. ,Greater district engagement, continued CBO agency as well as sustained programmatic endeavors spearheaded by principals at the local school level are important for RJE to pose as a true alternative to punitive sanctions rather than being coopted by the retributive approach. Therefore, my study pushes the field of human service delivery, in that instead of focusing on the outcomes of RJE, per se, it looks at the process of and challenges in implementing this innovation, providing insight into improving contracting relations between partners and questions the sustainability of reform efforts within urban environments.

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