Restorative Practices results mixed in county schools

This school year Pulaski County Schools has implemented restorative practices to deal with discipline in county schools. And according to a mid-year report on its success, presented by School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers, the results have been mixed.

Just what is restorative practices?

“To sum it up in layman’s terms, restorative practices is adding the teaching component to discipline,” Siers said during the school board’s meeting Tuesday.

“It’s not really that you don’t discipline students, it’s what we were missing previously.”

Siers used the example of a student who in the past misbehaved and they were suspended for five days. Following the suspension, they went back into the class, but, as Siers explained, no one took the time to have a conversation with the student about how they would respond the next time they were confronted with a situation the likes of which they were suspended for originally.

“Instead of lashing out with profanity or whatever may have occurred, how can you do it differently,” Siers said. “How do you think other people were impacted by your behavior, and what can you do to repair that relationship.

“All the teaching was missing,” Siers stated. “We were basically suspending kids and putting them back in the same situation without instruction, and our job is to teach. This adds the teaching component to discipline we were already doing.”

Siers explained the school system in previous years had a “concerning disparity” in the percentage of referrals for discipline and suspensions for African American students and for Students with a Disability.

Siers said the school system received a letter last year from the Virginia Department of Education citing concerns about the school system’s suspension rates for students with a disability.

“A review of our data led us to conclude that our practice of continually suspending students for infractions was not effective, based on the sheer number of repeat offenses that administrators encountered,” Siers said.

Thus, restorative practices – a philosophical “framework” for school culture based on the belief that everyone is connected, and that each person has worth – was adopted.

Siers told the board restorative practices incorporates relationship building, increasing trust and encouraging better communication between school personnel, students and families.

“When applied to school discipline, restorative practices involve assigning consequences while teaching students about personal accountability and the importance of repairing any harm caused by their behavior,” Siers explained.

Siers said all instructional personnel and counseling staff were presented with an overview of restorative practices, and  expectations were established that “community building” activities occur in class – activities that allow students to communicate with each other and teachers so they feel a sense of trust within the community. The activities were designed to make students feel more comfortable communicating with teachers about their problems.

Each classroom was to have one community building activity per week during the first nine weeks and every other week thereafter.

Siers said restorative practices conferences were implemented for Tier 1 incidents of disruption, defiance and disrespect. Siers said the conferences involved teachers having a sidebar conversation with the student about how their behavior may have impacted others. That might also lead to discussions with parents and students together – all in an effort to give students a chance to repair their situation.

Professional development sessions were held during the year for instructional personnel around the ideas of restorative practices.

Also, Siers said “restorative academies” were established at each of the county’s secondary schools to be used as an alternative to short term suspensions.

Siers said in the past a student might be suspended for five days.

“Now, they might be suspended for one day and spend the other four in a restorative academy where they are served by a highly qualified teacher, they work on their assignments and get the assistance they need, and they also work on a restorative component. ‘How will I handle the situation differently the next time.’ Hopefully it will help them make better choices next time,” he reasoned.

Siers said there have been victories this year.

“We have an ample number of classrooms at each school where restorative practices are being implemented with success,” he said. Also, he stated the academies are helping to reduce the number of out of school suspensions and ensuring students are able to continue getting instruction.

“And we are seeing a reduction in the number of repeat offenders, which is ultimately our goal,” Siers said.

But problem areas still exist, Siers said. He said implementation was somewhat rushed and goals were too broad; professional development was not sufficient for increasing the comfort level of all teachers, and misinformation and incorrect assumptions drove the narrative in the community.

“I think some of the negatives got out and drove people’s feelings about it [restorative practices] before we could even access the data to see if it made any difference or not. But we are taking some steps to correct that,” Siers said.

Siers explained that data from the first semester shows a significant reduction in discipline referrals at the elementary level for students with a disability, but a significant increase in the number of suspensions.

He blamed that rise on elementary schools having to deal with “a number of behaviors that you don’t typically see in kindergarten students. That seems to be throughout the county this year and throughout the area.”

At the middle school level, Siers said data shows a significant reduction in suspensions across the board and in the number of repeat offenders.

However, at Pulaski County High School, Siers said data “looks too good to be true.”

He said the data doesn’t correlate with the feedback received from teachers about the effectiveness of restorative practices. That feedback, he said, “suggests that teachers were discouraged from making referrals for discipline and that many behaviors went unreported and unaddressed.”

“I think the high school data is unreliable at best and will require more research to find out why everything is dropping across the board,” he said.

“There is no program or philosophy in the world that would get you those results. If that was happening and it was working, we would not have received the overwhelming negative feedback we’ve received about the program,” Siers said.

Next steps in the process, Siers said, involve a February meeting of the school system’s Restorative Practices Advisory Team to further develop a framework that will work best for county schools.

Siers said a parent / community information night will be held in March or April to discuss where the county is in the restorative practices process and get feedback for next year.

“The whole idea was not to stop suspensions, but rather to teach students to do what they need to do so they wouldn’t be suspended again,” Siers said.

Editor’s Note: Critzer Assistant Principal Angela Clevinger has submitted a column offering more information about restorative practices. Her column can be found in this week’s print edition on page A7.

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