KASB Focus: Restorative practice: Is it a game changer in improving school climate?

By Leah Fliter lfliter@kasb.org 

Continuing concerns about how Kansas students’ social and emotional health, bullying and other behavioral challenges affect learning have prompted educational leaders to explore new ways to influence school climate. “Restorative practice” is one such strategy. 

Restorative practice, also known as restorative justice, works to keep students in school while addressing problem behavior and its impact on the school community. Students are held accountable for their behavior, but educators are trained to look for the root causes of the behavior and respond accordingly. 

For example, a student witnesses a fight between her parents just before she leaves for school. Upset by the conflict, the student worries all morning. Her stress overflows at lunchtime and she gets into a minor altercation in the cafeteria. In a zero-tolerance setting, the students might be detained by police, and one or both could be arrested and expelled from school. In a restorative school, support staff intervene in the argument, have the students sit down together, and defuse the situation by talking through what prompted the incident. The students may agree to make restitution by helping clean the cafeteria. A counselor meets with the student and works with the family to resolve the conflict at home. 

Advocates say restorative practice reduces discipline referrals and suspensions, improves school climate and diverts children from the so-called “school to prison pipeline.” It rejects zero-tolerance disciplinary policies while emphasizing school-wide healthy relationships between administrators and students and the development of social-emotional skills and understanding. Students, teachers and administrators learn to manage difficult situations through a variety of methods that include heavy emphasis on recognizing the impact of poor behavior on perpetrators, victims and the school community. Restorative practice works in tandem with the Kansas Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) and supports the Kansas State Board of Education’s social-emotional wellness outcome in its vision for the success of each Kansas student. 

Critics of restorative practice characterize it as an abdication of school districts’ responsibility for the safety of students and staff, and say it provides cover for disruptive or illegal activity that wouldn’t be allowed if not for political concerns about reducing school suspension rates for some groups of students. Two recent national studies report mixed results for restorative practices in schools, and educators say it can be challenging to find the time and money to properly implement. 

Kansas discussions 

At a May 2019 meeting of the Kansas State Department’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Bullying, Sharon Kniss of the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (KIPCOR) briefed the task force on the institute’s Restorative Schools Initiative. Kniss said restorative practice is a “holistic, common sense” way of looking at the spiritual, physical, mental and emotional factors that contribute to school behavior issues. It focuses on building teacher/staff-student relationships and a strong school culture that will allow for appropriate and effective responses to issues such as bullying.   

“We’re looking at addressing the underlying issues and disrupting the cycles of bullying by showing the impact of bad behavior and giving victims of bullying a voice and safety,” Kniss said. “Transforming school culture is preventive in itself.” 

In a June Task Force meeting, Liberal USD 480 middle school teacher Daniel Minde said restorative practice helps teachers bring the bully and victim together to work on moving forward. He said social/emotional teaching should be part of every school and every grade level. 

Wichita USD 259  

Wichita West High School 

When Joel Hudson began his tenure as principal at Wichita West High School in 2011, about 70 of the school’s roughly 1,300 students were being expelled each school year. Dropout rates were unacceptably high, and the graduation rate was disappointing. “We had a number of what we called ‘explosive events,’ as well, on an almost-weekly basis,” Hudson recalled. A culture change was clearly needed. 

Through grant funding and the school district’s work with the Safe and Civil Schools organization, the West High leadership began training teachers and staff on restorative practice and other initiatives to end the “school to prison pipeline.” The restorative concepts were embedded in the student handbook and in incident reporting forms and other disciplinary materials. 

Hudson said some teachers were skeptical at first. They assumed restorative practice would require teachers to be “too soft” on the students and were concerned about their personal safety. Hudson stressed that drug and weapons offenses along with assault and battery were non-negotiable offenses that would lead to disciplinary hearings and ultimately to expulsion if warranted. Existing school district disciplinary policies would also be enforced. The goal, Hudson told his staff, was to address student habits and behaviors before they escalated into fights or other offenses. “We wanted to reduce time out of school, so kids could stay on track academically and succeed in the community,” Hudson said. In addition, disciplinary hearings are time-consuming for administrators, and stressful for principals and families. If we can address the behavior so it doesn’t repeat, we’re all winners.”  

Hudson advises school leaders not to force teachers and staff to participate in restorative practice work. Focus on a “coalition of the willing,” he said. “At some point you’ll get a critical mass of adults who are willing to to work with the kids.” 

The West High staff found that many of the issues causing conflict at school were occurring off-campus in families or in the community. By using restorative practice to ask students what happened during an in-school incident, what prompted it, interviewing witnesses, reviewing the impact on the overall school community and how to move forward, school leaders could help students regulate their behavior at school. “It’s time-consuming, but by digging a little deeper, you can prevent second, third and fourth incidents and major events,” Hudson said. 

West High student expulsions were at roughly 35 by the end of the 2018-19 school year through hard, intentional work with restorative practices, the Safe and Civil Schools program, and the school district’s recent embrace of trauma-informed training. The drop-out rate has fallen, there are fewer major negative events, and the graduation rate is up. Hudson credits West High School Psychologist Jan Petersen for driving the use of restorative practice at the school, and applauds Assistant Superintendent Gil Alvarez for rolling out restorative practice at all USD 259 secondary schools in 2018-19. 

“Restorative practice in combination with Safe and Civil Schools and trauma-informed training helped us reduce inappropriate behavior but increase good data points for West,” Hudson said.  

Hudson, who retired at the end of the 2018-19 school year, said embracing restorative practice was “very rewarding” and changed his leadership style. 

“I was old-school, but I soon realized we weren’t going to be able to expel our way to a successful school,” he said. “It was a good experience for me professionally.” 

Truesdell Middle School 

In the 2011-12 school year, USD 259’s Truesdell Middle School saw more than 4,500 disciplinary referrals among its 800 students. Former Truesdell Principal and current Assistant Superintendent for Public Affairs and Special Projects Terrell Davis said because of that atmosphere, Truesdell had the highest rate of transfer-out requests in the entire school district. Davis was hired as Truesdell’s principal and with the support of then-Superintendent John Allison used restorative practices and other resources to dramatically improve the school’s climate. 

In addition to adding paraprofessionals to reduce teacher/student ratios, a third school counselor, and hiring an additional assistant principal who served as dean of students, Davis and his team worked to establish a restorative practice-based culture that emphasized predictability, expectations and consequences that worked in tandem with existing school district disciplinary policies prohibiting weapons possession and other dangerous behavior.  

“We established the culture up front, on the first day of school, and reinforced it throughout the school year,” Davis said. “Kids need to understand the expectations and the consequences. We also explained why the lessons we were teaching work for life outside school, too. If you’re consistent, they have predictability and you get good behavior.”  

Disciplinary referrals at Truesdell decreased by 1,500 in the 2012-13 school year. By 2016, despite an enrollment increase of 300 students, total disciplinary referrals had fallen to 1,100 and Truesdell was USD 259’s most-requested transfer-in school, Davis said.   

A commonly-used restorative practice is discussion of negative behavior, its affect on the perpetrator, the victim and the school community and how the offender can repair that damaged relationship. The conversations can take place between students and administrators or teachers, as well as in “circles” of classmates and teachers. It’s not uncommon for teachers who use restorative practices to stop a lesson when an issue arises and immediately deal with it in a restorative circle. Teachers nationwide acknowledge the practice takes time away from the lesson plan but say the improvement in class culture is worth it. 

“You have to walk through the situation with the kids,” said former Truesdell assistant principal Darron Alford. “You ask, what were you thinking when the incident happened? What should you have done differently, or should you do differently in the future? Give the kids some grace to repair the relationship, make restitution, and not be labeled by their behavior on one bad day,” Alford said.  

Former Truesdell dean of students Claudio Flores said teachers need constant reinforcement in the methods and implementation of restorative practices. “If you invest in teachers [with training and added supports], they’re willing to be part of the team and restorative practice works,” Flores said. Flores is currently principal of USD 259’s new Bryant Opportunity Academy, which is designed for K-6 students with the most severe behavioral problems.  

Alford and former Truesdell assistant principal Kim O’Reilly said changing from a purely punitive model of school discipline is difficult for some educators, and administrators must work through that change with their staff. 

“I show them the data [on how restorative practices work in the classroom] and I ask them, ‘How do you want your class to be?’” Alford said. “Giving kids ownership and responsibility for their behavior increases their engagement with other students, teachers, and their own education.” 

“Hire teachers who don’t want to just sit behind a desk,” advises O’Reilly. “Lower their class sizes, give them technology; teachers will step up or step out.” 

Topeka USD 501 

In March 2018 testimony before the Kansas Legislature’s Education Committee, Topeka High School Principal Rebecca Morrisey told committee members that “zero-tolerance” school discipline policies of the 1980s led to increased suspension and dropout rates along with more delinquent behaviors in communities. The criminalization of school behavior, Morrisey testified, created a school to prison pipeline characterized by oppressive physical surroundings in which children of color, LGBTQ students and students with disabilities are punished more often and more harshly than their peers for the same misbehavior. Morrisey told the committee that fights and out of school suspensions have declined following the implementation of restorative justice on campus. While weapon or drug offenses involve out-of-school suspension and other consequences, many conflicts can be handled in school through restorative practice, she said.   

Morrisey formerly was principal of Eisenhower Middle School in Topeka. She testified that in the 2011-12 school year, there were 61 fights and 160 suspensions in the 450-student school. EMS implemented restorative practice in 2015-16 and saw a 72 percent decrease in fights and a 69 percent decrease in suspensions, while enrollment grew by 27 percent. Restorative justice properly implemented with high expectations and careful delivery, Morrissey said, improves school climate, which is increasingly proven as crucial for student success. 

Regina Platt of the Lawrence Gardner High School in Topeka’s Kansas Juvenile Justice Correctional Complex testified at the same 2018 hearing that implementing restorative practice at the school allows students to connect with adults and more readily accept guidance from them. Platt said the school has fewer discipline referrals, students spend less time out of class, develop better social skills and have more respect for the learning environment. “This program changes one perspective, relationship and behavior at a time,” Platt testified.  

National studies on restorative practice in schools show mixed results 

The Chalkbeat education reporting service reported in January 2019 that a major study by the RAND corporation found that while restorative practices made Pittsburgh public schools safer, other indicators dropped. And while suspensions generally decreased district-wide, middle-school student suspensions did not.  

Pittsburgh teachers, especially at the middle-school level, said it was often difficult to fit restorative practice into an already-full curriculum 

In May 2019, the Hechinger Report in an article entitled “The Promise of Restorative Justice Starts to Falter Under Rigorous Research,”  summarized the Pittsburgh study and a second RAND study on the use of restorative practices in Maine public schools. In Maine, RAND said, school climate didn’t improve in buildings using restorative practices. According to the think tank, the biggest insight from the Maine study was that despite years of training and daily work, students didn’t report experiencing restorative practices in the classroom and didn’t seem to be buying in to the concept of talking problems out with perceived enemies. The Maine study did note that students who experienced restorative practices such as “circle” discussions felt more connected to their peers and experienced less cyber bullying. 

Researchers caution that it’s too early to draw solid conclusions based on two studies of restorative practice and note it’s difficult to control for out-of-school decisions and behavior. 

Challenges 

Costs: as an example, restorative practice training costs $4,000 per person through theKansas Institute for Peace and Conflicted Resolution (KIPCOR)at Bethel College in Newton. Other costs include hiring additional support staff, administrators, counselors and teachers; and professional development materials and time 

Resources 

KSDE/TASN: https://www.ksdetasn.org/smhi/restorative-practices 

KIPCOR 

Safe and Civil Schools 

WestEd study: https://www.wested.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/resource-restorative-justice-in-u-s-schools-an-updated-research-review.pdf 

Edutopia: Restorative Justice: Resources for Schools 

KASB: committee learns about restorative justice: https://kasb.org/0320-5/ 

The Ins and Outs of Restorative Justice in Schools: https://www.ewa.org/blog-educated-reporter/ins-and-outs-restorative-justice-schools 

What Teachers Need to Know About Restorative Justice: https://www.weareteachers.com/restorative-justice/ 

RAND study: https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2800/RR2840/RAND_RR2840.pdf 

Opinion: If You Won’t Do Restorative Justice Right, Don’t Do It 

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