What struck Erika Strauss Chavarria the most was the mutual respect she saw between adults and teenagers at Denver’s North High School. Having watched her own students in Maryland get handcuffed by armed police officers in the hallways, the Spanish teacher said North seemed almost like “a utopian society.”
“It’s like the little things that make this building great,” Strauss Chavarria said. After she and other visitors sat in on a history class, the buzz was not about the lesson but about how the teacher trusted students enough to go to the bathroom without asking permission.
North is one of three Denver schools serving as national examples of restorative justice. Educators and community members from around Colorado and the country have been invited to spend a day in one of these schools to see what it looks like when teachers and students are encouraged to sit down and hash out their conflicts.
Restorative justice – or restorative practices, as Denver Public Schools calls it – is an approach to school discipline that focuses on repairing harm rather than doling out punishment. In action, it looks like students or teachers who are in conflict having a conversation about how their actions affected each other and what they can do to fix the situation. Advocates say the method reduces punitive discipline and builds relationships that feed a positive school culture.
Denver began dabbling in restorative justice more than a decade ago with a pilot program at North and three other schools. It’s now part of the district’s discipline code, and officials said more than 40 percent of Denver’s 207 schools have staff dedicated to restorative justice.
The district has seen its number of suspensions drop even as its enrollment has grown. In 2010, the district suspended nearly 9,000 of its 78,000 students, according to district and state statistics. Last school year it suspended just shy of 4,500 of its 91,000 students.
The length and breadth of Denver’s experience make it a good exemplar, said Dwanna Nicole of the Advancement Project. The Washington, D.C.-based civil rights organization is part of a coalition that began arranging the visits last year. The coalition aims to host 15 visits a year split between North, Skinner Middle School, and Hallett Academy elementary school.
The visits are free for educators and community members, and the slots fill up quickly, Nicole said. The funding comes from a three-year grant from another coalition member: the National Education Association.
Teachers unions aren’t always fans of this approach. Some teachers worry that a soft touch will leave them without enough tools to deal with unruly students and might even make classrooms less safe. Denver’s union once had similar concerns but is now part of the coalition. The national union joined to inform more teachers about the approach, said Harry Lawson, associate director of NEA’s human and civil rights department.
There isn’t a lot of research on the effects of restorative justice, and studies haven’t found a direct causal link between restorative practices and better student outcomes. However, existing research consistently finds decreases in the use of suspensions and improved school culture.
The idea behind the visits, organizers said, is to answer questions common even among those who’ve been trained in the basics: What does restorative justice look like when it’s done well? What does it feel like? How do I know if I’m in a school that’s “restorative?”
They’re also meant to energize educators who may find themselves the lone advocate for the method in a community of skeptics. “They’re able to go back home and say to their principal, ‘I saw it. This is what they did,’” Nicole said. “It renews the work.”
The recent visit to North gave the 15 visitors, 14 of whom were from other states, a chance to pick the brains of administrators, teachers, and students who buy into restorative justice.
Kelsey Binggeli, a Spanish teacher who’s been at North for three years, fielded questions about how she gets to know her students and what she does when they’re late to class, an issue several visitors acknowledged was a problem at their schools.
“When they get to my class late?” Binggeli said. “Invite them in. ‘Welcome.’”
The visitors exchanged incredulous looks. Several remarked that wouldn’t fly at their school.
Lisbeth Vargas, a restorative practices coordinator at North, explained that students who are tardy get a phone call home. But unbeknownst to them, she said, all first-period tardies are excused. It’s a decision she said administrators made after hearing students’ stories of having to drop off younger brothers and sisters or take unreliable public transportation.
Vargas is teaching a new class at North this semester that gives students even more of a role in restorative justice by training them to facilitate conversations for low-level offenses, such as using a cell phone in class. In recruiting students for the class, the school aimed for a mix of ages and discipline records, inviting those who’d been in trouble and those who hadn’t.
Sophomore Laila Arguello said that before taking the class, she ditched school so much that Vargas had her mom on speed-dial. She was quick to escalate confrontations, she said, and often found herself part of the conversations she’s now learning to lead.
“You know how girls are,” Arguello said. If someone was gossiping about her, she said, “I’d go up to them and be like, ‘You want to fight? I’ll fight you.’ … Now I’m like, ‘If you have an issue, we can talk about it. I’m not going to waste my time on arguing and fighting with you.’”
Other students said the class has made them think of themselves differently, as leaders and role models. “My grades have flipped after being in this class,” said sophomore Francisco Alvarado-Melchor. He said his attendance has improved, too.
Principal Scott Wolf is a restorative justice evangelist. Even though it was in place before his tenure, he said the culture at North was still very top-down. He’s worked hard in the last five years to give students more of a voice, he said. The school got rid of its strict dress code and restarted the student council. All job candidates are interviewed by a panel of students and asked specific questions about discipline. Their answers can be a deal-breaker, he said.
The visitors were stunned. Our principals spend their time worried about test scores, they said.
“I will take lower test scores any day of the week,” Wolf told the group. “I don’t need to have the very best test scores if families and kids feel welcome and included.”
But Wolf was also honest about some of North’s challenges. He readily admitted that not all teachers are on board with restorative justice. While the district does provide some support, he said he’s had to do a lot things on his own. And although he said he strives to hire teachers who reflect the student population, which is 75 percent Hispanic, most teachers are white.
North also still suspends students. Last year, district statistics show the 1,000-student school had a 9 percent suspension rate, which is higher than some other similarly sized high schools.
If students are fighting and their conflict can’t be resolved with a conversation, dean Marisa Lucio said they’ll often be suspended. The difference is that in order to come back, the students and their families must participate in a meeting and restorative conversation.
“There’s always that skill building that happens,” Lucio said.
This year, Wolf said the school has issued half as many suspensions as it had at this time last year: 33 compared to 67. He said North is “committed to data integrity,” meaning it’s honest about recording when students are not in class for discipline reasons, whether they’re sent home or still at school cooling down after a conflict or thinking through what happened.
At the end of the day, the visitors gathered to debrief. Kevin Gilbert, the equity director of a school district near Baltimore, said what struck him the most was a brief conversation he had with one of the students who was part of the restorative justice class. The student had recently transferred to North, and when Gilbert asked about the difference between his old school and his new one, the student answered, “The adults in this building care about me.”
“That’s what all this work is all about: trying to change the culture and climate of our schools,” Gilbert said. “This is not about implementing a program. It’s implementing a way of life.”