“Good riddance to zero tolerance!” declared IIRP president John Bailie, Ph.D., opening the IIRP Symposium: Integrating School Climate Reform Efforts. At that, about 150 educators from across North America — superintendents, school climate and safety administrators, teachers, counselors and psychologists — cheered their approval.

They had come, along with a panel of six school climate reform leaders, to Bethlehem, PA, July 20-21, 2015, to explore how the wide array of programs created to replace zero tolerance could work together.

Some participants came expecting to find THE ANSWER to take back to their district. That didn’t happen. But they did come away with an engaging way to think and talk about the issues to bring home. Ultimately, the symposium was intended to be a model for participatory change. Sustainable change needs to be developed and employed through extensive collaboration, whereas enforced or top-down implementation creates inherent limitations.

To kick off discussion, each panelist answered: “How can the leading national school climate reform programs work together to create a more effective movement for change?”

Keith Hickman, IIRP Director of Continuing Education, hoped that “the restorative practices framework can be threaded all the way through so that other programs can rest on it.”

Jonathan Cohen, Ph.D., National School Climate Center Co-founder, encouraged everyone to: “be explicit about our goals and use metrics so we transparently share how it’s working. Embrace that failure is a foundation for learning.”

Jane Riese, Olweus Bullying Prevention Program Director of Training, advised, “Together we have the power to advocate for the rights of people at all levels and facilitate responsibility for each other’s well being.”

Rodger Dinwiddie, Students Taking a Right Stand (STARS) Nashville CEO, suggested: “We need to focus on impact while remaining loose on programs.”

Rick Phillips, Safe School Ambassadors program creator, stressed that “students are waiting for us to give them the opportunities to be the leaders we want them to be and they want to be.”

Jeffrey Sprague, Ph.D., University of Oregon Professor of Special Education, asked how the group could work together to achieve these outcomes: equity; relationships and social capital; procedural justice; compliance to adults; social-emotional skill performance; academic achievement; and teacher- and peer-related adjustment.

Tia Kim, Ph.D., Second Step programs Development and Evaluation leader, appealed to everyone “not to think about adding on more programs, but about how we enhance each other to create safe, supportive learning environments.”

Small group discussions

For two days, participants were engaged in small groups (which included panelists), discussing challenging questions, professional and personal, based on the methods of author Peter Block.

Everyone addressed the following questions in groups of three of four, then reported back to the whole group:

“What struck you most [about the panelists’ comments]?”

“There’s an assumption that schools will welcome work in the area of climate,” commented Pamela Emery, Safe Schools Consultant at the Pennsylvania Department of Education, warning about the enormous pressure around academic achievement.

“It’s nice to see the panelists model collaboration,” observed Margaret Sedor, a school psychologist from San Diego, CA. “It helped me think: As adults we’re doing top-down; we’re not listening to student voice.”

“Why is it so important that you came here?”

“We need to learn: How do we get everybody on board?” stated Ken Lerner, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, MD, who is investigating the effectiveness of restorative practices provided by the IIRP’s SaferSanerSchools Whole-School Change program in schools nationwide, through randomized controlled studies.

“The parenting part of the equation seems to be missing,” declared Nathaniel Turner, a parent from Indianapolis, IN.

“What do we want to create together that you could not create alone that could make the difference?”

“The student is the goal, not the data,” proclaimed Andrew Turner, Safe Schools Coordinator from Salisbury, MD, who explained that he was trying to help school administrators understand this.

“How much risk do you hope to take?”

“It’s all a risk,” acknowledged Kimberly Merath, a school psychologist from Milwaukee, WI, Public Schools who is coordinating its federal Project Prevent grant. “All the schools use PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports). Now we’re figuring out how to integrate other programs under it, including Second Step and Social Emotional Leaning.”

“What have I done to contribute to the very thing I complain about most in my life that I want to change?”

“Having transparent, intentional conversations,” offered Marinieves Alba, Community School Director with Children’s Aid Society, in, New York, NY. “That’s how I’ve been managing restorative practices dissenters.”

“I’m very grateful to come to an event and take a deep breath,” asserted Deborah Haber, an education consultant from Framingham, MA. “We’ve always been tasked with ‘get this, do that.’ But this approach is restorative and one we need to bring back to our schools and communities.”

Large group question-and-answer

In “Affinity Gatherings,” participants met in large groups to ask panelists questions and give them feedback. Afterwards, panelists addressed: “What did you learn that challenged some of your basic assumptions or surprised you?”

Keith Hickman: “We’re all still struggling with a lot of push back and fear from distrustful leadership. We’re going to have to use the practice to find the answers.”

Jon Cohen: “Relatively few people are thinking about district-level policy reform, yet it’s beginning to shift. From Chicago to Westbrook CT, they’re developing district-level policy aligned with restorative practices and Social Emotional Learning.”

Jane Riese: “Restorative practices is really getting to be a household word, like bullying came to be. It seems to be a meaningful option to make schools better.”

Rodger Dinwiddie: “There’s an absence of support for adults who are traumatized — a need for EQ [Emotional Intelligence] for adults who we’re asking to work with children.”

Rick Phillips: “There’s such a sense of urgency to move forward. We shouldn’t go so quickly to implementation before we understand where we are.”

Jeff Sprague: “We seem to be having a hard time breaking out of our own frames of reference. What is it about circles that’s so universal? That’s what’s going to bring us to the point that we can integrate.”

Tia Kim: “You want us to give you the solution, but we won’t be able to do that in this short time. It really takes all of us to come up with an integration model.”

Day 2

Day two began with reflections from the panelists on: “What particular assets do the programs bring to schools?” “What do schools need?” and “What’s a different way to have a conversation around these things?”

Tia Kim: “To know how each of these programs enhance and support one another — which they all do — we need to understand them all first.”

Jeff Sprague: “The answer to the implementation questions: ‘Who’ll do it? What is the scope and sequence? How do we provide material and support? and How do we involve parents?’ Just put in on the schedule and do it.”

Rick Phillips: “We must include young people in changing the climate, reaching beyond youth leaders to outliers, who’ve never had the opportunity to express themselves.”

Rodger Dinwiddie: “Bullying is a form of abuse; it’s not a conflict. And adults are responsible to set the tone that bullying is not to be allowed.”

Jane Riese: “We’ve got to think about how we may be able to offer sections or pieces of our models to fill in the gaps.”

Jon Cohen: “More states are mandating school climate measurement. Some are just checking it off and not using it for anything. What are you going to do to make measurement an engagement strategy?”

Keith Hickman: “What happens outside the school is equally important — with folks in neighborhoods: community-based organizations that we keep outside.”

Small groups take 2

Then small groups dealt with these questions:

“What are your concerns around integrating school reform efforts?”

“PBIS, restorative practices, anti-bullying: There are so many different elements. Do we expect one person to implement it at a school?” asked teacher April Colen, from Los Angeles, CA, Unified School District.

“What happens when you have too many schools? What happens if you have leaders doing it because they have to not because they want to?” wondered Autumn Chapman, a School Climate Change Grant Project Director, from Eureka, CA.

“What commitment are you making from today?”

“I promise to move away from what’s expedient and move toward what’s compassionate,” pledged Rob Simon, Restorative Practices Advocate, in Wichita, KS, Public Schools. “People say ‘I don’t have time.’ I say, ‘You don’t have time not to.’”

“I promise to create space and time to have a mini-conversation with all 750 students in my school,” vowed Mary Bowie, a school principal from Milwaukee, WI.


The symposium ended with the closing go-around: “One thing that was most meaningful about this experience.”

“We have been dealing with competing mindsets — behavioral, developmental,” concluded Kate Snow, Climate Coordinator of Davis, CA, Unified School District. “But there is a shared mindset that includes all those perspectives. This event was a very concrete and visceral experience of that reality.”

Ultimately, after two days of challenging, in-depth discussions, symposium participants and panelists alike had moved from anticipation through uncertainty to understanding and hopefulness for the future.

Going forward

The next day, the panelists met together by themselves to continue the conversation. They felt the pressure to come up with a way to integrate their programs, but they believe that a truly sustainable solution has to be thoroughly participatory and include all local stakeholders. They did agree that over the next few months they will collaborate on a white paper on how to integrate the various models and will share it widely.

“There was a lot of creative conversation around the extent to which educators have come to expect fairly proscribed answers,” reflected IIRP president John Bailie a month after the event. He also reported that the symposium had been a great chance for program leaders to get to know each other and their work. “You can’t collaborate without understanding and relationships,” he explained, adding, “The IIRP will be taking a more collaborative approach to climate reform that these new relationships have made possible.”


Janet L. Fox Petersen, Ed.D., a school psychologist in Wichita, KS, Public Schools, talks about her experience at the Integrating School Climate Reform Efforts symposium:

Read panelist Rodger Dinwiddie's blog post in which he speaks of his experience at the symposium.

Recently in Education Week, school consultant Peter DeWitt asked Sean Slade, director of ASCD’s Whole Child Programs (the two co-authored a new book, School Climate Change: How Do I Build a Positive Environment for Learning) to discuss the challenges to helping schools create safe, supportive, engaging and healthy climates for learning and other school-climate issues similar to those explored at the symposium.

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