Hinkley High School students Aurora Hernandez and Dearic You have been spreading rumors about one another.

Aurora told her friends Dearic smelled. Dearic fired back and told his friends Aurora was having inappropriate relationships with too many of their male classmates.

In a second floor classroom, Aurora and Dearic are gathered around a table with two student facilitators, Marco Dominguez and Nyece Smith. The goal is to help Aurora and Dearic resolve their conflict through a process known as restorative justice. If successful, the program will help the two isolate the root causes of their behavior, take ownership of their actions and build trust.

If the conference is successful, the conflict between Aurora and Dearic won’t escalate or happen again.

As it turns out, Aurora and Dearic’s argument was just a role-play. Aurora, Dearic, Marco and Nyece are among more than a dozen students enrolled in a peer mentoring class led by counselor Deanna Kline. Students learn life skills, conflict management and study social issues, like eating disorders and poverty.

Students who pass the class may move on to become restorative justice facilitators. Working alongside the high school’s dean, they’ll help their peers work through conflicts using the restorative justice model many Aurora Public Schools officials are celebrating as the reason suspensions and expulsions are dropping.

Nationwide trend

When the Obama administration released new guidelines on school discipline earlier this month, federal officials urged schools across the country to rid themselves of zero-tolerance polices. The federal Justice and Education departments, echoing years of a growing consensus of researchers and activists, believe these policies lead to a significant numbers of students missing class due to suspensions and expulsions, especially students of color.

APS won’t have to do much to comply with the new guidelines.  The suburban district, east of Denver, trashed all but one of its zero-tolerance policies — bringing a firearm on a school campus is still an automatic expulsion. 

Aurora officials replaced their zero-tolerance policies with multiple approaches, including restorative justice, that keep students in their seats while offering teachers and school leaders alternative paths to manage their classrooms and campuses, said Bonnie Lavinder, Aurora’s director of division and equity and engagement.

And the results APS has seen — a 2 percent drop in suspensions and expulsions each year during the last three — are exactly what the White House hopes to see across the nation as it crusades to break the “classroom-to-prison pipeline.”

APS is now embarking on an ambitious path to implement restorative justice in as many of its schools as possible. The expansion isn’t just to keep kids safe. When students spend more time in class and less time suspended academic outcomes improve, officials from Washington to Aurora believe. 

Struggles persist   

While the district is seeing across the board dips in suspension and expulsion rates, APS is still struggling with racial disparity.

African-American students, especially boys, continue to be suspended and expelled at a higher rate than any other ethnicity group. During the 2012-2013 school year, one in every ten Aurora high school student was suspended. But one in every seven black high school student was suspended during the same time.

Even as suspension rates for black students is dropping, the expulsion rate has risen steadily during the same time.

During the last three years, one in roughly 100 Aurora students of all races were expelled. But, for example, during the 2010-2011 school year, one in every 62 black students was expelled. The following year: one in every 54 black students was expelled. And during the 2012-2013 year, one in every 46 African-American students was expelled.

Lavinder said she isn’t sure why black students are being suspended and expelled higher rates, but the district is reviewing its policies and, according to an APS spokeswoman, a districtwide survey will be conducted later this year exploring multiple issues including student-teacher relationships.

At Hinkley High School, where African-American suspension and expulsion rates slightly outpace the district’s, every black student has been provided a mentor, said the school’s dean Bonnie Martinez.

And that’s a good first step, said Greg Brown, a probation officer and spokesman for the Restorative Justice Council–Colorado.

But if Hinkley and APS want to see similar declines in suspensions and expulsions among African-American students, it would be behoove them, Brown said, to ensure each school has an equitable number of restorative justice leaders from the same population or bring family and those aforementioned mentors into the restorative justice conferences.

“What we know is the relationships we develop with kids and their families is the most important thing,” Brown said. “If you don’t have relationships and if there is a cultural barrier, it could be that much more difficult.”

And each restorative justice conference and outcome should be customized to each situation, Brown said.

Making it their own 

A restorative justice conference takes a lot of time — about an hour, Martinez said. But she argues that it’s worth it.

While some critics of the program claim it takes away from too much instruction time, Martinez counters that “if we don’t front load, we’ll pay for it in the end.”

Martinez also points to fewer disciplinary referrals to her office. She believes students and teachers are finding ways through restorative justice to prevent classroom disruption. Teachers and student leaders who have embraced the program can hold shorter, less formal conferences in hallways or in between classes.

“Our teachers are doing the work, as well as the community,” Martinez said.

Hinkley High School has invited families to participate, Martinez said. And the program isn’t just for student conflicts. Conferences are held between students, teachers and staff. Even Hinkley principal Matt Willis, a former Marine, has led and been a participant in a restorative justice conference to resolve conflicts with his staff.

He said practicing restorative justice has made him more open to different voices and focused on how to repair broken relationships. “It’s been very transformative,” he said. “Just a total culture shift.”

That culture shift doesn’t happen overnight, said the Denver Foundation’s education director Sarah Park. “But it is deep and meaningful.”

The foundation is helping APS expand the program through grants and programing.

And students say they’re also taking the lessons of restorative justice outside of the classroom to their homes and part-time jobs.

“My dad doesn’t like to share his feelings that much,” Hinkley senior Cynthia Cisneros said. And that would lead to plenty of misunderstandings. “But I’ve learned I need to where he’s coming from. And when I did, he started to share. I have a better relationship with my dad now.”