Schools taking a 'restorative' approach to discipline

Kristin Dresler
Kristin Dresler, an elementary school principal in the Willmar district, takes notes during a circle demonstration at a restorative practices training on Monday.
Solvejg Wastvedt | MPR News

In the face of disproportionately high suspension and expulsion rates for students of color, many schools are looking at ways to keep misbehaving students in the classroom and on track for academic success.

Many schools are turning to a method called "restorative practices" to accomplish that.

"I really believe that the kids need to be in the classroom, and in order for that to happen teachers and students need to understand each other's values and how to build those relationships," said Willmar elementary school principal Kristin Dresler, who was in New Hope this week for training on restorative practices offered by the state Education Department.

When there's a discipline problem, the restorative model says that instead of handing down consequences, it's better to bring together everyone affected by the problem and let them decide as a group how to solve it.

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There's an emphasis on repairing the relationships that were damaged by the misbehavior. In order for that process to work, schools have to build community among students and staff.

At this week's training, educators split into groups of eight for a demonstration of a key component of the strategy — the group circle. They sat on folding chairs and went around the group, speaking in turn and passing a rock to show whose turn it was to talk. The "talking piece" is key in the restorative model.

Diana Bledsoe, principal at North View Middle School in the Osseo district, led one of the circles where educators talked about personal values.

"Tell us who your people are, and what your word is, who taught you that word. Tell us a little bit about what the word means to you today," she told the group.

Circles can happen in classrooms with students or among staff. The idea is that schools should do them on a regular basis to build community.

Then when a student misbehaves, the school can use the same circle model as a response. If students are bullying, the school might bring the bullies together with the victim, family members of each student and the teacher. The group would come up with a plan. The plan would include consequences for the bullies, but perhaps more importantly, the process would give everyone a chance to hear all sides of the problem and have a voice in the solution.

The state Department of Education doesn't have numbers on how many districts are using restorative practices, but officials say interest in training has gone up. Restorative practices became part of Minneapolis Public Schools' district-wide discipline policy in August 2014, and six St. Paul schools are piloting the practice next year. The St. Paul teachers' union pushed this year for restorative practices as the district struggled with student behavior problems.

A 2014 state law also includes broad language requiring schools to use restorative practices as part of their response to bullying.

But the practices are very different from the kind of discipline most teachers are used to. Joe Krasselt, middle school dean of students in the St. Anthony-New Brighton district, says he's excited about bringing the ideas to his district. But after seven years as a teacher, he understands why it might be hard for some to embrace.

"This lesson just means so much to you, and you create it and everything's working great until some student just ruins it for whatever reason. And sometimes if you let it get to you, you want to see that student experience some kind of consequence that's tangible," he said. "A circle where people talk about different things — sometimes a teacher's going to feel like, 'That's not cutting it.'"

Krasselt is not alone. Bledsoe says she's felt the same way. But she says she's realized the old discipline methods don't work for every student.

"If you've experienced success in this manner for the majority of kids, why don't you just keep doing it? And why you don't just keep doing it is because there is that fraction of your school community that isn't experiencing success," she said. "And if we really believe that all students matter, then we need to make sure that we're tackling and supporting each kid."

A recent study of restorative practices in the Minneapolis school district found increased attendance and decreased suspensions for students involved in a restorative program. A 2014 study in Oakland, Calif., also found a reduction in suspensions, with a greater impact for African-American students. The federal Department of Education recommended restorative practices in a 2014 letter on eliminating discrimination in discipline.

Still, University of Minnesota professor Clay Cook says it's too soon to tell whether the restorative practices movement deserves the broad support it's getting.

"Some of the enthusiasm appears to be outstripping some of the scientific evidence we have regarding its effectiveness," Cook says. "Although there's a lot of studies currently underway to look and establish it as kind of a strong, evidence-based practice, currently we have kind of limited defensible evidence that suggests that we should scale up and implement this on such a wide basis."

Cook says restorative practices address a need to repair relationships in schools. But he says if schools focus too much on the new ideas and neglect other necessary parts of a discipline program, like teaching behavior norms and social-emotional skills, that can be a problem.

"If schools go all in on one thing, really it's at the expense of other things they could potentially be doing. If a school does commit fully to restorative practices they might be leaving out other things that are necessary," Cook says.