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]

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a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.