SaferSanerSchools: Transforming School Culture with Restorative PracticesLaura Mirsky, International Institute for Restorative Practices, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
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Twelve-year-old Tiffany (not her real name) rushes into the student office at Palisades Middle School, in southeastern Pennsylvania, USA. “Hi Tiffany,” says the office secretary, Karen Urbanowicz, “What are you doing here?” Tiffany says that she was getting in trouble in class. Mrs. Urbanowicz asks Tiffany what happened and Tiffany tells her story. “Did your teacher send you here?” asks Mrs. Urbanowicz. “No,” says Tiffany, “I sent myself.” “Good for you!” says Mrs. Urbanowicz. She takes Tiffany’s personal journal out of a file and hands it to her, saying, “Write about what happened and what you think you can do better in the future.” Tiffany sits down and begins to write.
The name they gave to these strategies is “restorative practices.” Restorative practices involve changing relationships by engaging people: doing things WITH them, rather than TO them or FOR them—providing both high control and high support at the same time. Said Ted Wachtel, “In our schools, we provide a huge amount of support. We’re very understanding and find all sorts of ways to help kids understand their behavior, but at the same time we don’t tolerate inappropriate behavior. We really hold them accountable.”
Instead of zero tolerance and authoritarian punishment, restorative practices place responsibility on students themselves, using a collaborative response to wrongdoing. Students are encouraged to both give and ask for support and are responsible for helping to address behavior in other students. This fosters a strong sense of community as well as a strong sense of safety. “Restorative practices are not new ‘tools for your toolbox,’ but represent a fundamental change in the nature of relationships in schools. It is the relationships, not specific strategies, that bring about meaningful change,” said Bob Costello, IIRP director of training.
Eventually, the IIRP began to articulate these practices and find ways to teach them to others. They also found that the processes applied to many settings, not just with troubled kids. Since restorative practices worked so well with the toughest kids in their own schools, the IIRP thought they ought to be able to work in other schools, as well.
Through a SaferSanerSchools pilot program, restorative practices have been introduced to Palisades High School (732 students), Palisades Middle School (559 students) and Springfield Township High School (855 students). The program is in various phases of implementation at the three schools. All have implemented restorative practices in creative ways.
A visitor walking the hallways at any of these schools feels immediately welcomed into a lively and cheerful community. Ask any student for directions and he or she provides them in a spirit of open friendliness. Staff members seem just as congenial. An observer in classrooms and at special events perceives that students have a strong connection to their school, the staff and each other.
Palisades High School was the first SaferSanerSchools pilot school. Asked how restorative practices have changed the school, Principal David Piperato said that before the program was introduced, as in many public schools throughout the US, the level of caring and respect among many students had declined. Restorative practices, he said, “created a more positive relationship between staff and students.” Preliminary data gathered by the school indicate a clear decrease in disciplinary referrals to the student office (Figure 1), administrative detentions (Figure 2), detentions assigned by teachers (Figure 3), incidents of disruptive behavior (Figure 4) and out-of-school suspensions (Figure 5) from school year 1998-1999 through 2001-2002, the years of the pilot project.
Restorative practices also helped establish a culture of collaboration among staff members. Said teacher Heather Horn, “The traditional mindset of, ‘If you’re doing something wrong it’s not my job to confront you.’ has become: ‘This is a team thing and your behavior is affecting me as a teacher.’” The administrator-teacher relationship is now collaborative rather than just supervisory, said Piperato: “the right style for a high school.” Restorative practices have also had a positive effect on academic performance, he said, adding, “You cannot separate behavior from academics. When students feel good and safe and have solid relationships with teachers, their academic performance improves.”
Restorative practices were introduced at Palisades High School in the 1998-1999 school year. In the fall, the school had launched a new program, the Academy, for students who didn’t feel connected to school and were struggling with behavior or academic performance. The Academy is project-based. Kids work with clients outside school to design websites, produce videos and build construction projects. But, said Piperato, “We made a critical error: we addressed the content of the program, not relationships between teachers and students. And from the first day, the program was as close to a disaster as you can imagine.” Rebelling against the lack of structure, unmotivated kids roamed the building, their behavior rude and belligerent. Teachers turned on each other, frustrated and upset.
At that time, the IIRP presented their idea of implementing restorative practices in schools to Joseph Roy, then Palisades High School principal, and Piperato, then assistant principal. Roy and Piperato realized that they could use the IIRP’s assistance with the Academy immediately. Said Piperato, “This was an opportunity for them to test their theory in our most difficult setting.”
Piperato said he knew that he and Roy needed to be intimately involved with the experiment from the beginning—supportive and willing to take risks. “The IIRP staff spent hours listening to us, gave us strategies for dealing with the kids and held us accountable for using them,” he said. They started to see some success with the way the teachers were feeling almost immediately. The biggest step, said Costello, was when the teachers recognized that they had to take care of themselves as a team before they could help the kids. “They needed to respect their style differences, be honest, practice what they preached and work on their issues: do all the things they were asking the kids to do.”
The IIRP taught the Academy staff to use the continuum of restorative practices, starting with affective statements and questions—sharing and eliciting emotions—to help students understand that they were as responsible for the success of the Academy, as well as to and for each other, as the teachers were, said Piperato. The teachers also learned how to use circles, interventions, one-on-ones and group meetings with kids. They introduced “check-in” and “check-out” circles at the beginning and end of each 90-minute class period—an opportunity for students to set goals and expectations together.
The strategies quickly started to show results with students. “Restorative practices helped us help students see that they need to buy into the community that we’re building,” said Academy teacher Eileen Wickard. Comments from Academy students indicate a strong sense of community: “We’re a big family. We’re all so different but we all work together.” “If two people are arguing, a group of us will get together and talk to the people and try to work it through. As a group we’ve managed to make ourselves more mature.”
Word soon spread throughout the school that the Academy had been successful with students no one had been able to reach before. Academy kids were also receiving positive recognition from the community. Teachers in the rest of the school consequently became more willing to listen to the “wacky touchy-feely stuff going on in the Academy,” said Piperato. Roy and Piperato decided to phase in restorative practices in the rest of the building over a three-year period. They divided the staff into thirds: the “believers,” the “fence sitters” and the “critics.” The first year, the IIRP provided basic knowledge of restorative practices for the believers, teaching them to be a support group for each other. “That was phenomenal for us,” said Horn. Teachers used to complain to each other about kids and judge them, she said. But the IIRP taught teachers how to discuss students’ behavior, rather than their personalities, and brainstorm as a group about how to handle it. “Before, it was almost a taboo,” said Academy teacher John Venner. “You never talked to another teacher about how they talked to kids. It was their own damn business in their own classroom. Now we find it very acceptable to hold each other accountable.”
By the second year, said Piperato, the fence sitters had begun to notice the positive effects of restorative practices. The believers and the fence sitters were combined into two mixed groups, and the IIRP trained them together. The believers modeled, provided support and told stories about their experiences with restorative practices and the fence sitters learned from them. By the third year, teachers who needed evidence that the program worked were seeing it. Those who had been resistant were less so and many teachers retired. Newly hired teachers were trained with the third group. All teachers were encouraged to use restorative practices in the classroom.
English teacher Mandy Miller said that she uses restorative practices, including circles, to build relationships between students. She told a story of a girl who felt that other students were getting in the way of her learning and asked for a circle meeting to address the issue. During the circle, the girl realized that she was actually causing most of the problem herself. “That was a really hard day and people were in tears,” said Miller, but since then, the entire class has been getting along fine. Miller has also found restorative practices helpful with discipline problems. “I can say, ‘This is how I’m feeling. How are you feeling? And what are we going to do to work together?’” Students seem to value and understand the processes. A ninth-grade girl commented, “We do fun team-building activities in biology class to learn how to work with people you’re normally not used to working with.”
Assistant Principal Richard Heffernan said that in 2001-2002 they saw an increase in “harassing types of behavior,” not high level incidents, but those that were creating problems nonetheless. Said Heffernan, “We asked the IIRP staff, ‘Why do you think this is happening? We’re supposed to have restorative practices, express our feelings, treat people with respect and be responsible for our actions.’ They said the reason we’d seen this increase was that students were reporting it more, because we had created a safe environment.” The culture of the students as a whole had changed. It had become acceptable to “tell” when another student was making them feel unsafe. Added guidance counselor Monica Losinno, “Kids feel safe reporting it because they believe it will be addressed.”
Heffernan and Losinno devised a program whereby a staff member is available every period of the school day to facilitate conflict resolution in a restorative manner. Eight teachers and teaching assistants received IIRP group facilitator training. When a problem arises, one of the eight talks with each of the students involved, then brings them together to help them work it through. Teacher and “conflict resolution manager” Richard Kressly said that the entire school staff was educated in restorative practices and asked to be more present in the hallways and more diligent about low level incidents. The program does not relieve teachers from handling disruptive situations in class, said Heffernan.
Kids seem to appreciate the ways in which restorative practices have created a congenial climate in their school. Said a ninth-grade boy, “If kids get in a fight they have someone to help them work it out.” A ninth-grade girl added, “We don’t get many fights. I think there’s only been two all year. That’s not many at all for a high school. Most people get along real well.” A 10th-grade girl who had transferred from another school said of Palisades High School, “One thing I noticed right way was the friendly atmosphere.”
Restorative practices came to Palisades Middle School (PALMS) in the fall of 2000. Said Palisades Middle School Principal Edward Baumgartner, “When I took over here two-and-a-half years ago, we were suspending 200 students a school year for everything from disrespect to not making up gym.” The school climate was discourteous and disrespectful and altercations were common, he said, adding, “The behavior was the result of treatment, perceived or actual, in many cases. You’ve got to give respect to get it.” Then, said Baumgartner, “I sat on the stage for graduation at Palisades High School in June of 2000 and saw a phenomenon that I didn’t understand: kids that had routinely been behavior problems at the middle school were hugging the assistant principal and thanking her.” Baumgartner learned that the high school had implemented the SaferSanerSchools program and decided to follow suit at PALMS.
“Two-and-a-half years later,” he said, “everybody in this building’s been trained, including all the support staff. It’s changed the way we teach kids; it’s changed the way we think about discipline and behavior management. We get along here, and that’s because the kids are respected and they know it.” And, said Baumgartner, “We’ve seen a statistically significant decrease in the amount of actual problems that occur each and every day.” Data gathered by PALMS indicate a substantial drop from school year 2000-2001 to 2001-2002 in discipline referrals to the student office (Figure 6), discipline referrals by source: teacher, cafeteria and bus company (Figure 7) and in incidents of fighting (Figure 8).
In addition, there has been a significant increase in students reporting other students for behavior problems, students self-reporting and parents reporting their children. Kids feel comfortable saying, “I’ve got a problem; I need help,” said Baumgartner. Also, he said, “The school cafeteria is a place where I’m real proud of the kids, a place that I would invite board members to come in and sit down every day.”
“I’ve had an epiphany, a metamorphosis,” said Baumgartner. “I used to be one of these black and white, law and order guys. Kids had to be held accountable and the only way to do that was to kick them out of school—to show the other kids that you’re the boss. That doesn’t work,” he said. “I didn’t solve problems; I just postponed them until they got to high school and then somebody else had to deal with them. Restorative practices work. We now fix and solve problems.”
Asked if restorative practices have had a positive effect on academic performance, Baumgartner said, “Kids can’t learn in a dysfunctional environment. If the teacher is spending valuable instructional time addressing a student who’s acting out, that detracts from the instruction. If teachers can be more focused on instruction, the answer to your question has to be yes. We’ve gone down 400 classroom referrals, so I know that the answer is yes.”
Palisades Middle School Dean of Students Dennis Gluck is also the intervention specialist—someone to facilitate restorative circles and model restorative practices for others. Gluck helped the IIRP implement restorative practices at PALMS. First, he said, the school identified six or seven kids who were really struggling and set up a restorative classroom with them. “It was really successful,” said Gluck. “It showed the rest of the staff that this could work with the toughest kids in the school. The kids not only did well, but were able to help other kids.” The whole staff then got excited about the possibilities of restorative practices, he said.
Restorative practices are used in classrooms in the form of circles, when kids and staff share information and problems. In discipline situations, kids can write in their personal journals, kept in the student office, about what happened and suggest how to take care of it. “Through that we process what would be appropriate, from an informal plan to a formal plan to a restorative conference,” said Gluck.
Gluck said that they put a lot of thought into the processes that they developed. “We created a cafeteria committee to deal with problems, we had kids help other kids when they were in jams, and at the end of the year, some of the kids that had struggled the most went on the P.A. (public address) system saying that they loved the administrators.”
Staff members appear enthusiastic about restorative practices. Veteran PALMS educational assistant Karen Bedics said that she has seen a big change in the students due to the approach. “Students at this age are very self-centered. They need a constant reminder that other people are affected by what they do. If we have a conflict, we will meet as group and tell what part each of us, including the teachers, played in it. I’m not afraid to tell them my feelings and I always keep their feelings in mind,” she said. Also, said Bedics, kids now “reprimand each other if they mess up. It means more to them to hear it from their peers.” Fran Ostrosky, long-time PALMS teacher and president of the Palisades Education Association (the teachers’ union), said, “I’ve gotten more out of my students with this approach than I did with a more rigid approach to discipline problems. When you solve problems with them rather than coming down from ‘on high’ they buy into it much better.” Disciplinary aid Gretchen Carr said that restorative practices have “made a tremendous impact on these kids, in their behavior, in their respect for one another and the adults. It also helps that everybody in this district has adapted to it and is practicing the same thing,” said Carr. “It’s not going away and the kids realize that.”
Kids seem to welcome the approach. “I used to get in a lot of trouble, but teachers talk to students and help you make the right decisions here. In homeroom we sit in a circle and talk about anything that needs to be brought up,” said an eighth-grade girl. Said a seventh-grade boy, “When I disrespected a teacher and I apologized to her, it felt good. If they feel bad it’ll make you feel bad too.” An eighth-grade girl said, “The school has gotten to be a really nice community and people really treat each other fairly now.”
District administrators are thoroughly supportive of SaferSanerSchools. “Restorative practices work,” said Palisades School District Superintendent Francis Barnes. “It requires a certain level of self-discipline from all of our staff and they have accepted that challenge and the students have responded very well.” Said Assistant Superintendent Marilyn Miller, “Consistently what we hear from people who visit the schools from the outside is that our students are confident, happy and articulate. That was not the case in 1998.”
After helping to implement restorative practices at Palisades High School, Joseph Roy became principal of Springfield Township High School in January of 2000. His strategy for introducing restorative practices at Springfield has been to “start with a small group and then do another small group and start to expand critical mass.” He picked a few teachers he thought would be interested in restorative practices training, then a few more. “We’re still at the beginning of the process here,” said Roy.
Specific groups have been trained, including those working with poorly motivated, at-risk students in the Spartan Project, an American studies class that combines English and social studies, as well as teams of eighth- and ninth-grade teachers. Roy finds that the teaming concept is consistent with restorative practices. The entire faculty was introduced to restorative practices in the fall of 2001. “The goal,” said Roy, “is to integrate the practices throughout the school. Our challenge here is changing the traditional school culture to become more restorative.” Roy considers restorative practices to be “one piece of many things we do for culture-building,” including treating kids with respect and having a team of teachers and parents identify the school’s core values. “I guess you could tie it all in to restorative practices,” he concluded.
The demographics at Springfield are different from those at Palisades, said Roy. “We’re the first ring of suburbs around Philadelphia,” he said, “so we have a lot of transfer-ins from families moving to the suburbs for the better schools. These kids are much more city street smart than suburban kids. That’s part of the challenge—to take kids that are coming from a different system and have them be integrated into the culture of this school and not have the culture of this school shift toward the behavior of the Philadelphia schools.” Roy said that restorative practices had definitely helped with that concern. “Usually kids will catch onto ‘OK, this is how we behave at this school, this is what the expectations are and this is the culture’ and they get on board,” he said.
The number of discipline referrals is down dramatically already since he came to Springfield, Roy said. Data gathered by the school indicates decreases in incidents of inappropriate behavior (Figure 9), disrespect to teachers (Figure 10) and classroom disruption (Figure 11). Added Roy, “They’re lower-level stuff: Johnny didn’t come back to study hall after he went to the library—stuff like that.” In the past, said Roy, there were many more incidents of disrespect and defiance.
Said Roy, “When I first got here there was something called ‘time out.’ Teachers would kick kids out of class and send them to a ‘time out room.’ Sometimes they’d get there, sometimes they wouldn’t. If they got there they just hung out. There was no follow-up. We put an end to that. Now, not nearly as many kids get kicked out of class, and if they do they come to our in-school suspension room and teachers are required to follow-up and to contact the parents.”
Now, instead of just “hanging out,” said Assistant Principal Michael Kell, during in-school suspensions, a student is given a list of seven questions to think about along the lines of those asked in a restorative conference, i.e., What happened? Who do you think has been affected by your actions? What can you do to repair the harm? Kell discusses the questions with the student, sometimes bringing in the teacher involved, as well. He asks both to talk about how they feel and helps them mend their relationship.
Kell is an enthusiastic proponent of restorative practices. “Usually the assistant principal—the chief disciplinarian—sets the tone for the building, and in that tone we’ve tried to create a restorative culture here,” he said. He also works with teachers to help them be more restorative and trust the practices instead of simply blaming kids for problems. “One teacher thought we were lowering his authority in the classroom by using circles,” said Kell. “I told him, ‘I felt bad that you felt that I wasn’t supporting you. You have the ability as a teacher to say how you’re going to change things. Think of it as an investment. You’re going to get dividends in the future.’”
Kell facilitates formal restorative conferences when serious problems arise. One conference brought a school custodian together with students who had been disrespectful to him. The custodian told the kids how they had hurt him and that he felt great pride in his work. The kids apologized to him and had new respect for him after the conference. Guidance counselor Kevin McGeehan also facilitates restorative conferences. He ran a conference after members of an athletic team scratched their names into some new lockers during a school renovation. Chuck Inman, facilities director, who participated in the conference, was very impressed with the process, saying, “The kids got to realize that their actions had affected more people than they thought”—their teammates, the construction workers and the taxpayers. The incident represented $900 worth of damage—a tiny fraction of the $27,000,000 school renovation, but “it was the principle that was important,” said Inman. As a consequence of their actions, the kids had to pay to replace the locker doors.
McGeehan also uses a restorative approach in everyday interaction with kids. “When I see a kid acting up in the hallway, instead of immediately dragging him into the discipline office, I’ll pull him over, one-on-one, and try to find out exactly what’s happening and to understand where he’s coming from,” he said. “A lot of times it’s not the specific incident that’s caused the conflict, but rather something that’s happened earlier in the day or at home or in a previous class. Allowing that venting process alone tends to diffuse it, along with the feeling that an adult is listening and understanding.” Said Roy, “When you get to the point where it’s informal but constant, that’s where you want to be.”
Roy encourages teachers to use the check-in and check-out model with both classroom management and academic issues to “create the culture that says, ‘We talk about stuff as a group and we help each other out.’” Eighth-grade teacher Michele Mazurek uses check-ins on Mondays and check-outs on Fridays “to get a sense of community within the classroom.” Just doing it twice a week has cut down on the number of incidents of teasing because students have heard each other relate some of their goals and aspirations, she said. A 12th-grade girl said that check-ins were “a way for people to open up and share what’s important to them, then somebody else might relate to it. So people can relate to each other in ways they might not have.”
Social studies teacher Dave Gerber was skeptical about the restorative practices training at first but is now an enthusiastic proponent of the approach. “My students know that I treat them with genuine respect and I think that’s where restorative practices begins and what really helps it take shape in the classroom,” he said. A senior girl agreed, saying, “The teachers respect us and we respect them back. They talk with us instead of at us.” Gerber said that it’s possible to use restorative practices regardless of class level or content. In response to teachers who say they don’t have time to implement the approach, he said, “You don’t have to spend 40 minutes doing a circle. You can spend five minutes and it is effective. You’ll be able to go back next class and make up for that five minutes of content you didn’t get in. If you have people arguing in the classroom all the time, what kind of learning is taking place?”
Students at Springfield Township High School seem to appreciate their school’s climate. A 12th-grade girl said, “Everybody accepts everybody for who they are. Our teachers are awesome. I try and do my best just so I can be like: I’m from Springfield, this is what they’ve taught me; this is what I’m doing; I’m going places in life. I have that feeling. I think the majority of our school does, too.”
Administrators and teachers at the three pilot schools believe that more needs to be done to continue to implement restorative practices in their buildings, but all feel that they have a solid foundation on which to build. Palisades High School teacher Heather Horn talked about the difficulties at the beginning of school year 2002-2003, due to contractual problems and a threatened teachers’ strike (which never materialized) as well as a building torn apart by construction. Despite the turmoil, said Horn, there was a willingness to work toward repairing the climate among the entire staff, adding, “The effects of restorative behavior were clearer last fall than ever before.”
Staff members at Palisades High School, Palisades Middle School and Springfield Township High School know that their education in restorative practices will be ongoing. To cite one example, Joseph Roy said that Bob Costello, IIRP director of training, scheduled to help Springfield implement a restorative practices-based program for the eighth grade. Time will be set aside for kids and teachers to break into small groups that will focus on goal-setting, community-building and academic issues. As Palisades High School Principal David Piperato said, “Learning to be restorative is a lifelong process.”