Restorative justice

Talk it out: Restorative justice techniques help school communities rethink approaches to discipline

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School in Nashville uses restorative justice techniques as a way of dealing with disciplinary issues issues beyond suspensions.

Silent with arms crossed, two girls face each other across a table at Nashville’s Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School, their first day back to school after being suspended for fighting each other the week before.

The students had been avoiding each other since their classroom altercation in January. But now, along with three school administrators, they join a “community peace circle” to seek a resolution – a new practice at Pearl-Cohn following fights or other disciplinary infractions.

“This is just for you guys to try to take in and process yourselves first, process one another, and process how you can move on for yourselves and each other,” Gerlonda Hardin, the school’s dean of students, tells the girls.

Finally, one girl explains the source of her anger and heightened sensitivity. She has been living on her own for the first time, which she describes as difficult. When she heard the other girl talking about her with a group of other girls — a charge never denied — her feelings were hurt.

“I said something, and I shouldn’t have,” she acknowledges about her role in the altercation, noting that the next time she will keep to herself.

Researchers say such conversations improve a school’s climate on at least two levels: Students develop the skill of empathy by working to understand how the other participant perceived the initial conflict; and administrators learn more about their students and how to support them better.

“Most kids don’t like the aftermath of a fight. To the degree that they have skill sets and opportunities to solve things in other ways, they’re open to them,” said Maury Nation, a Vanderbilt University researcher studying such alternative discipline techniques in schools.

A different way

Community peace circles are just one piece of Pearl-Cohn’s programs aimed at restorative justice – a philosophy of resolution, discipline and reconciliation based on talking and learning the root cause of disciplinary issues, rather than depending solely on traditional methods of punishment such as detention of suspension.

The principles and goals of restorative justice are especially appealing as the “school-to-prison pipeline” — the idea that schools are ushering some students, especially minority students, into the criminal justice system — gains momentum in the national conversation around race in schools.

Across America, students of color are suspended and expelled at a far higher rate than white students. In Nashville, nearly 70 percent of students expelled in the district in 2011-2012 were black, even though black students made up only 45 percent of the student population.

“Once you suspend kids, you more than double the risk of them dropping out of school, and kids who drop out are at much larger risk of ending up [in the judicial system],” Nation said.

To address racial disparity in suspensions, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools kicked off an initiative last July called Positive and Safe Schools Advancing Greater Equity (PASSAGE), to understand and reduce racial disparities in school discipline. This year, the district added eight counselors specializing in restorative justice from STARS, or Students Taking a Right Stand, a local non-profit organization, for a total of 14 restorative justice counselors districtwide. In schools across the state, STARS has about 50 counselors.

The Tennessee Department of Education is increasing its focus on restorative justice approaches as part of the Safe and Supportive School initiative, funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The grant, which goes through this year, allows Vanderbilt researchers to assess “school climate,” defined as the quality and character of school life based on patterns of personal experience. A positive school climate is associated with stronger academic performance, higher graduation rates, decreased incidences of violence and increased teacher retention, according to researchers.

This month in Nashville, the department held its first workshop for educators interested in restorative justice practices – which not only deal with how school officials respond to disciplinary issues, but how they can prevent them. It will be holding more workshops throughout the coming months through its Department of Student Services.

“Restorative practices are emerging as an opportunity to address discipline and behavior in a more positive way,” said Trevor Fronius, a researcher for WestEd, an education think tank based in San Francisco.

Preliminary research suggests that restorative justice programs positively impact student behavior, but more research needs to be done, Fronius said. Regardless, many urban schools are trying out the approach, and educators say they like the resulting improvements in relationships within their schools.

Road to reconciliation

At Pearl-Cohn, early feedback looks promising.

Since administrators and staff began implementing restorative justice practices last fall, referrals to the principal’s office have decreased, and the school is on target to meet its goal of a 20 percent reduction in referrals.

With 900 students enrolled – more than 90 percent black and more than 80 percent economically disadvantaged – Pearl-Cohn has a disproportionate number of suspensions. During the 2013-2014 school year, 3,103 referrals were made involving more than 56 percent of the school’s student body.

Today, the school still issues suspensions for physical altercations, but they always are followed by community peace circle discussions.

The journey to community peace circles began three years ago when Sonia Stewart became principal of Pearl-Cohn. Changing the way administrators dealt with disciplinary issues was part of her larger plan to increase trust between students and faculty and remove barriers to academic success.

“Much of those barriers are behavioral,” Stewart said. “We didn’t even use language of restorative justice. It was more, ‘How are we going to interact with children? How will we interpret classroom behavior?’”

Restorative justice requires changing teachers’ understanding of students – and why they might be acting out. Stewart hosted professional development sessions, including poverty simulations, so teachers could better understand their students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and how to respond to disciplinary issues. Stewart also recruited a STARS counselor and an emotional learning specialist.

In her second year, Stewart began organizing small groups for students to learn about techniques in anger management.

This is the first year the school has used community peace circles. The school also added alternatives or supplements to suspension, in hopes of preventing repeated infractions. Every student sent to the office participates in a conference, in which they discuss what happened, why it happened, and what they could have done differently. After that, options include community service, peer mediation, writing letters of apology or an informal hearing.

After only a semester of community peace circles and other restorative justice techniques, school administrators say the school has fewer office referrals and fewer repeat offenders. They attribute the decrease partly due to students feeling more comfortable to discuss problems and conflicts with adults in the building.

“Our No. 1 goal is for students to be at school,” said Tanzye Hill, Pearl-Cohn’s community schools coordinator. “At other schools, they’re going to have higher rates of suspension or absenteeism, which means students aren’t … [at school] learning.”

EDITOR’S NOTE:  The names and ages of the two students described in this story were withheld by school administrators.

Contact Grace Tatter at [email protected]

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

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Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.