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St. Paul schools see hope in 'restorative' discipline

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Seventh grade teacher Nick Altringer gathers his class into a circle.
Seventh grade teacher Nick Altringer gathers his class into a circle to talk about the work they did in class that day on Nov. 16, 2017.
Ellen Schmidt | MPR New

A seventh-grade student draws an offensive picture on another student with a marker. When the class sees it, there's an uproar. The whole period is disrupted, two days before a test.

If you're the teacher, what do you do? 

That scene unfolded this fall in front of Nick Altringer, a science teacher at St. Paul's Murray Middle School. But rather than toss out the misbehaving kids and push on with the lesson, he took a different tack.

After restoring order, Altringer the next day told the class to grab stools from a stack in the middle of the room and form a circle. The students passed around a "talking piece" to show whose turn it was to speak. They ended the circle by reflecting on the previous day's incident.

The circle offered a way for the entire class to reflect on what happened and how it responded.

Altringer is one of many teachers in St. Paul learning to use "restorative practices" in their discipline. Rather than sending misbehaving students to the principal's office and a potential school suspension, restorative techniques are meant to help students take responsibility for their actions but keep them in the classroom.

Seventh graders listen to an intro to their fifth hour life science class.
Seventh grade students listen to an introduction to their fifth hour life science class at Murray Middle School.
Ellen Schmidt | MPR New

"It's a way that creates an opportunity for growth for individuals," Altringer said. "The other way is more punitive, so it's always about harming the person and harming the person until they stop."

After students act out, teachers try to help the students work to do better.  While restorative practices may include a suspension to stop misbehavior, it aims to let students and teachers repair the problem.

Day-to-day, Altringer and other teachers hold discussions to build class community. It's preventative. The theory is that students need to feel invested in things going right.

In practice, it's not that neat and tidy. Students talk out of turn, fidget and don't all buy in.

Kahlaila Shambley works on an assignment in her life science class.
Kahlaila Shambley works on an assignment in her fifth hour life science class on Nov. 16, 2017.
Ellen Schmidt | MPR New

"Sometimes we have to do work and we don't finish because of the circle," seventh-grader Kahlaila said, adding that circles "could help sometimes," but it depends on the attitudes of the students involved.

Still, Altringer said he sees progress, and the circle was the best so far this year in this class.

St. Paul teachers pushed for restorative practices during contract negotiations two years ago because of turmoil over school discipline in the district.

Erin Dooley runs the restorative practices initiative.
Erin Dooley, who runs the restorative practices initiative, checks in on a sixth grade math class on Nov. 16, 2017.
Ellen Schmidt | MPR New

District officials had tried to reduce suspensions that were disproportionately affecting students of color. But according to some, they swung too far the other way and just stopped providing consequences. Restorative practices are an attempt to find a middle ground. 

"The traditional (discipline method) is that they're just sent home ... So they're out for three days, five days, whatever, and then they come back ... without discussing it really with any of the people that were hurt by their actions," Murray Middle School restorative practices coordinator Erin Dooley said. 

Six schools, including Murray, each received $150,000 last year to add staff positions, train teachers and communicate the approach to families. The district continued funding this year and added three more schools, with plans to add three more schools next year. The district is committing more than $4 million to the project over three years.

So far, St. Paul district leaders say it's too early to use discipline data to make definitive conclusions about restorative practices. In fact, most of the schools that started using the method last year saw an increase in suspensions compared to the year before.

The number of students getting sent to the office for misbehavior at those schools did drop slightly. 

At Murray, discipline referrals for the month of October showed a steady downward trend from 2015 to 2017. The school's restorative practices coordinator said in October she'd tracked more than 30 cases during the current year where restorative methods avoided or reduced traditional consequences.

And that may be the most important sign. The extra funding schools received to implement restorative practices is only committed through the end of next year.

Schools have used that funding to add staff positions to lead the effort. Dooley and her colleague Selena Kopas help teachers like Altringer run circle discussions. They pull students out of class and coordinate the lengthy restorative process.

Sixth-grader Liam Donegan reads after finishing his math assignment.
Sixth-grader Liam Donegan reads after finishing his math assignment at Murray Middle School in Saint Paul.
Ellen Schmidt | MPR New

Leaders at Murray say they hope by the end of next year, overall misbehavior will have dropped to a point where the rest of the school's staff can sustain the approach.

At this point, it's clear the two extra positions still play a crucial role.

On a recent day, Kopas walked the halls with eighth-grader Selah to talk over a disagreement Selah was having with a teacher. Selah had been sent out of class multiple times for talking. To try to solve the problem, Kopas prepared to do a restorative circle discussion.

"I listen to the students, and then I talk to the teacher, and if there's another staff member (in the class) I talk to them, I talk to other students, and then I also observe the classroom," Kopas said.

During the discussion the next day, Dooley, Kopas, the teacher, a school behavior specialist, Selah and her mom all shared their perspectives on the situation. Selah and her teacher told each other face-to-face what had been bothering them. Together, they formulated a plan to do better.

"I feel better about it because I expressed all my feelings I had, when before I kind of just held them to myself and that got more angry every time I thought about it," Selah said afterwards.

St. Paul board chair Jon Schumacher cited staff buy-in and positive effects on school atmosphere as signs that the restorative approach is working.

"We're committed deeply to ... the restorative nature of how we approach our students and our communities," Schumacher said.

But he didn't commit to a specific amount of funding for restorative practices after the current three-year term. Schumacher said the pilot will help the district understand school staffing needs.

"It's hard to know," Schumacher said. "And I don't think it's as simple as saying we started the program with this amount of money, and that's what we need every year to continue."