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.

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