Schools leaders credit new programs with drop in suspensions

Schools leaders credit new programs with drop in suspensions

Kristen Hanlon
restorative justice

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Alameda schools officials are crediting new, more progressive discipline policies for a drop in suspensions and expulsions.

The district has implemented restorative justice programs at Alameda, Encinal and Island high schools that focus on repairing the damage a student has done, instead of just punishing students for doing something wrong. And Alameda Unified is in the first year of a three-year pilot program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a framework for putting systems in place based on data and desired outcomes in order to effect a positive school culture.

Last year, Alameda Unified saw suspensions drop almost 20 percent from 2011-12, to 469 from 579, while expulsions dropped 64 percent, from 11 to four, data released by the California Department of Education in late January show. The district’s numbers outpaced the statewide total of a 14.1 percent drop in suspensions and a 12.3 percent drop in expulsions.

The district’s director of student services, Kelly Lara, said Alameda Unified has been implementing restorative justice practices at school sites over the past three years. Their focus, she said, is on figuring out why a student did something wrong and helping them understand the impact of their actions.

“By using restorative practices, you are essentially shifting the conversation from ‘You did this, you were wrong, don’t do it again’ to, ‘When you made this choice, it impacted others. What factors contributed to you making this choice? How would you handle this differently in the future?’” Lara said. “Let’s talk about how this impacted the other party and hear their point of view and their experience, and let’s understand our impact on our community and make better choices going forward.”

The approach, championed by Howard Zehr’s 1990 book, Changing Lenses, appears to be gaining currency in the nation’s juvenile justice system and schools. The Alameda County Health Care Services Agency’s School Health Services Coalition released a guide for implementing the programs in 2011, and Oakland Unified’s program was featured in a 2013 piece in The New York Times.

In addition to reducing suspensions and expulsions, restorative justice programs may also boost attendance and achievement. In addition to lowering suspension rates, a pilot program at Oakland’s Cole Middle School helped the school boost standardized test scores by 74 points and cut the amount of revenue it lost due to student absences by 97 percent, a study cited in the county’s implementation guide found.

At the heart of the process is the restorative conference, which includes all parties involved and a trained facilitator, usually the vice principal or principal of the school. Its emphasis is on creating empathy.

“Under previous discipline models, students would do the same thing over and over again, yet we’d expect them to do something different,” Lara said. “This model works with young people to help them understand their impact and make better choices.”

It’s also, she said, about drawing the student out, and figuring out why they did what they did and what kind of support they may need to behave better.

“What is under the surface that brought about that activity?” Lara said. “Are you frustrated, do you need counseling … did something happen at home that you need support with? It’s about digging deeper.”

The main goal of the restorative conference is for the student “to make an honest, truthful apology, and an acknowledgement of their impact in the given situation – it’s an action that heals the wound that has been created,” she said.

An example of a problem to which restorative justice may be applied, Lara said, is vandalism. “You could work with the student to help him understand how vandalizing the property affects every student on the campus,” she said.

“Vandalism not only makes the campus dirty, but it makes the campus feel unsafe, which impacts students’ ability to learn. Not only that, but it impacts staff, who have to clean it, and it impacts our financial resources,” Lara said. “So you engage the student so that they understand what the full impact of their choice was, that their action ultimately hurt our community.”

The district’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program is being piloted in six school, special education director Susan Mitchell said. School-wide teams of between four and eight staffers, which are receiving training from the Santa Clara County Office of Education, are “looking at prevention and evidence-based behavioral strategies, defining what positive social expectations look like at their school, and creating a continuum of intensive individual interventions,” said Mitchell, who helps schools interpret special education law regarding discipline. The teams include general education teachers, special education teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, and campus supervisors.

While the new programs have reduced the district’s suspension and expulsion rates, they have not yet succeeded in addressing higher discipline rates for Alameda Unified’s African American and Latino students. African-American students, for example, receive 39 percent of suspensions, while only making up 12 percent of the district’s total student body.

“We knew that we needed to create more effective behavioral interventions and more culturally responsive training and culturally responsive environments at all levels, and we thought that with those kinds of interventions we’d be able to see a decline in rates of suspension,” Mitchell said. “If students are more engaged within the classroom, they are less likely to demonstrate acting-out behaviors.”

Alameda’s schools are also working to educate students peer-to-peer on positive behaviors like showing respect, and not engaging in bullying, district leaders said.

“There have been instances in which the school or grade level or class has engaged in writing reflective exercises about actions that have occurred in the community and the impact it had on them,” Lara said. “By using writing and class conversations as vehicles to engage the students, it makes (the disciplinary process) more personal, comprehensive, and community building.”