Jeffco Public Schools is investing more resources in so-called restorative practices as an alternative to suspensions, part of a broader reexamination of student discipline practices.
The district, under the leadership of a new director of discipline, has expanded training of teachers and administrators and is considering other policy changes, officials said.
“Moving forward with restorative practices and other alternatives to suspension are going to be a priority for us,” said Jen Gallegos, who became Jeffco’s head of student discipline about a month ago. “Right now it’s not a systemic practice in Jeffco.”
A practice that has gained momentum nationally, restorative justice shifts the focus of discipline from punishment to learning and personal growth. It provides school administrators a blueprint for leading discussions between people, usually two, in conflict. The goal is to help the two people, students or adults, understand the effect of their actions and to commit to solutions together.
Districts like Denver Public Schools — where Gallegos previously worked — have led in the use of restorative justice as a way to help decrease student suspensions, expulsions and referrals to police while also improving student behavior.
Recent data shows Jeffco has leaned more toward punishment in disciplining students. Last school year, Jeffco handed out more suspensions to young students than any other Colorado district and state discipline data showed that in 2015-16, Hispanic and black students were overrepresented among those that got suspended, expelled or referred to law enforcement.
Trying to reduce discipline numbers might be a motivation for districts to use restorative justice, said Jen Kirksey, principal of Jeffco’s Dunstan Middle School. But in practice, there’s another goal for school staff, she said.
“It’s about helping students understand how to authentically resolve conflict and repair harm,” Kirksey said.
This week, before classes resume for the fall, Kirksey and Gallegos led a training session meant to give school administrators real-world practice for how to roll out restorative justice and a related practice for leading positive discussions around a circle for larger groups.
The training provided a window into how a practice that gets a lot of attention in public education plays out on a practical level, including challenges adults face in seeing it through.
The district had provided some basic training before on what restorative practice are, but it was the first time the district made practical training available, led by a principal and a former principal, to all district principals or administrators who were interested. Almost 60 signed up.
Most already have been using restorative justice at their schools. But as they worked through demonstrations and shared examples of times they used the practices, they drilled down on details. Should you give students time to calm down before the discussion? Can the required guiding questions be phrased in different words? How are misbehavior incidents that lead to the restorative practice recorded?
Then the administrators got to see a mock demonstration of a restorative justice discussion involving two adults pretending to be students. Kirksey was the facilitator, showing how to ask the four questions that prompt those in conflict to think about the causes of their problem, the effect of their actions and also has them commit to a solution.
Kirksey cautioned administrators not to look for answers they would consider correct.
“You are teaching children to consider the effect of their actions,” Kirksey said. “Don’t do it for them.”
One of the administrators in the group asked how to help her elementary students think of creative solutions besides apologizing without suggesting the solutions herself.
The group brainstormed and suggested a class circle on the topic of what good apologies and solutions mean.
During circle activities — the proactive companion to restorative justice — all students must be required to participate, Kirksey told administrators.
The teacher, or a student, will start with a question and every person must give an answer. At the start of the year that might be about a favorite food, or favorite music, but as the year progresses, teachers can use the circle discussion to address problems in the class by asking what students wish their teacher was doing different.
Circle activities are meant to help students speak up and feel like they are part of a group, which should in turn decrease discipline issues.
Kirksey said that when students misbehave at her school — she mentioned one time that some students left school grounds, against school policy — other students step in to get each other back on track, even if it requires involving teachers.
It’s a culture Kirksey credits to restorative justice.
In her new district role, Gallegos said she also will be rewriting the district’s discipline matrix, which right now has no flexibility on how to discipline students when it comes to incidents involving drugs or weapons, and leading a focus group next month with elementary principals to come up with new resources and guidelines on other alternatives to suspensions or expulsions. Later she will do the same for secondary schools.
“At this point we know suspending the youngest kids is not super helpful,” Gallegos said. “If we can make sure that we are providing interventions for younger learners, we know that’s better.”