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 gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

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School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede