James Duran used to be in charge of discipline at Skinner Middle School in Denver. Until 2007, he sent students home daily. When there was a fight, students would get a mandatory three-to-five-day suspension and a referral to police.
"We suspended if a student refused to comply with a teacher's request," he said. "We would even suspend for truancies."
But in 2006, a new principal replaced zero tolerance with what are called restorative practices.
"We had to move away from punishment," Duran said. "(Punishment) didn't change behavior."
Duran said he's learned the best way to teach students good behavior is to build relationships with them, not send them home.
Denver schools switched district-wide from a zero-tolerance approach to a restorative approach in 2008. Since then, the district has narrowed the discipline gap between students of color and white students. Educators hope closing the discipline gap will mean the achievement gap will narrow too.
Problems remain. New approaches can be time-consuming, and staff is sometimes short. Yet Denver has accomplished something few other districts have managed: community groups, police, the teacher's union and the school district all say they're on the same page about how to get students ready for career and college. In 2013 the school district and the police department signed a landmark contract spelling out student due process.
"It's changing what we mean by education," said Eldridge Greer, Denver Public School's associate director of student support services. "For so many years we, didn't have a plan B to give to teachers. Once we had restorative practices, we had something to give."
The Denver Public School District is 56 percent Hispanic: about 23 percent of students are white; 14 percent African-American. In the mid-2000s. it suspended or expelled more than 10,000 students a year. It has cut that number in half.
Denver is about a half hour from Littleton, where two students at Columbine High School killed 15 people, including themselves, in 1999. Colorado was among the states that reacted by doubling down on discipline, increasing penalties not just for weapons possession, but for things like fighting or even swearing. Schools installed metal detectors and hired police officers. Between 2000 and 2004 in Denver, school referrals to police went up 71 percent. Most of those referrals were black or Latino kids.
Meanwhile, a counter-movement was gaining steam. In the early 1990s, Ricardo and Pam Martinez were living in Denver, with two daughters in public school. Pam was a secretary; Ricardo worked in a factory. They were both civil rights activists; they had met on picket line for the United Farmworkers in California in the 1970s. In 1992, they joined a protest at a grade school where non-English-speaking kids who misbehaved were punished differently than white kids. English-speakers who had misbehaved had to sit at a special table at lunch.
"If you were a Spanish speaker you sat in another corner, but you sat on the floor," Ricardo Martinez said.
Pam and Ricardo Martinez said parents wanted the principal to apologize. She never did, but, after a year of protests, she was fired. Ricardo and Pam became known for their advocacy on behalf of students who faced discrimination at school. They started a group called Padres Unidos, Parents United. At first they fielded calls from Latino families, but eventually African-American parents joined the cause.
Pam Martinez said in the early days it was hard to get Mexican-American and African-American parents to sit down together because of stereotypes they had about each other. She said a 1999 campaign to fix the lowest-performing middle school in the state finally did the trick.
"This is an equal opportunity failure," Pam Martinez said she told parents at Cole Middle School. "You have every reason to unite to change this school."
Padres' work in Denver drew the attention of a new national civil rights group called Advancement Project. In 1999 the group invited Pam Martinez and a Cole mother to a conference in Washington, D.C., on inequities in school discipline. Pam said it was the first time she heard about the school-to-prison pipeline.
"They did feel that there was a direct correlation of kids of color being pushed out a lot of schools and ending up in jail," Pam said "We went 'Oh! This is fascinating! Maybe this is what happening to us.'"
Padres Unidos grew in size and influence. In 2000 it became Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, Parents and Youth United. Pam and Ricardo Martinez became co-executive directors. The focus expanded, too: from individual cases to school-based problems to a district-wide orientation. By 2006, Padres was working with Denver Public Schools and the teachers' union on a pilot program to implement a restorative approach at four schools, including North High School.
"North High School at that point was under siege," said Ricardo Martinez. He said at least four police cars were stationed there daily to break up fights during lunch and after school. Martinez said the police presence "created such an impression that everyone thought all these students were criminals."
Ben Cairns was part of the transition to an approach aimed at building relationships and dealing with the harm that bad behavior caused. Cairns was the restorative justice coordinator at North for the pilot program in 2007. One result was fewer fights.
"That was one thing I looked to," he said. "Not just were we reducing suspensions and expulsions. Were we actually changing the culture and climate of the school?"
They were, according to researchers like Thalia Gonzalez, a professor of politics at Occidental College who surveyed students about the switch to restorative practices in Denver.
"Students themselves used language like 'our school's restorative,'" she said. "They wanted to be in a classroom now. Their teacher treated them with respect."
Gonzalez said the past few years have brought an explosion of interest in restorative practices, but their use in schools is still pretty new. Researchers will know more after long-term studies with control groups are published, but initial results are promising. Besides better attendance some restorative justice schools posted higher achievement.
The restorative process takes time, money and a new way of thinking about teaching.
Duran said there was a pushback when a new principal brought the approach to Skinner back in 2006, and nearly half the staff quit.
"The conversation started changing (from), 'I can't stand this kid, get him out and I don't want him back,' to 'Can you give this kid a time out?'" Duran said. "We started to put the onus back on teachers: Did you document this, did you contact parents, did you bring parents in for conferences?"
Even teachers who support restorative practices said they can be tough to implement.
At North, when there's a conflict between a teacher and student, they meet with someone on the school's restorative justice team to try to figure out what each of them did to cause the conflict and what each of them can do to make things better.
Andrea Rossin, who teaches 10th-grade English Language Arts, said the meetings can be very emotional. She wishes there were time for more of them. At North, like everywhere in Denver, there are just a few designated restorative justice staff, so teachers like Rossin have to improvise all the time. She said hallway interactions are often tense.
"I see a kid who I know has biology, so I tell him he should be in biology and he tells me to f--- off and keeps on walking or gives me a big attitude," she said. "A lot of the lower level discipline stuff goes to the wayside."
But Duran, who stepped down as dean and became a shop teacher at Skinner in 2015, said teachers and administrators collaborate to make sure students feel part of a family.
"We're not kicking kids out of our family," he said.