Schools facing dilemmas over disparities in discipline policies are turning to an approach known as restorative practices, focusing on how to repair harm done.
Last year, sophomore Noah Peña brought his new brass knuckles to school. He didn't feel threatened; he just thought they were cool. But they fell out of his pocket and Noah got sent to the principal's office.
He could have been expelled. But because he goes to high school in Denver, the principal took a different approach — he met with Noah and his dad. Noah agreed to reflect on his poor judgment and write down his thoughts. He also promised to work harder in school so he could get into AP biology.
"It kind of gave me the chance to be welcomed back into my community," Noah said.
Many schools and districts across the country are struggling to reform their discipline policies, and Denver was among the earliest to adopt what are called restorative practices districtwide. Research shows zero tolerance doesn't work and exacerbates racial disparities. Denver gave up zero tolerance in 2008, and it has tightened its racial discipline gap since then.
The specifics of restorative practices vary but they center on the idea of repairing the harm that someone's actions have caused.
Noah Peña's conference with his dad and his principal was a good example of the way they are supposed to work.
Before 2008, district policy would have required Principal Ben Cairns to seek Noah's expulsion. But now the emphasis is "preventing misbehavior before it occurs through building strong relationships and a sense of community," according to the district's policy.
"Restorative justice is still deep accountability," Cairns said. "Everyone has to treat everyone well, and when you don't we are going to talk about it; we are going to fix it and repair it."
The result, said Noah and Cairns, is that Noah's connection to his school is stronger than before and he is more likely to succeed academically.
Restorative approaches can be boiled down to three objectives: Everyone in the school community is responsible for keeping it healthy; out-of-classroom time is kept to a minimum; out-of-school suspension and expulsion may still be used for serious or violent transgressions, but the goal is to help the student rejoin the school community as soon as possible.
Restorative practices often involve conferences between teachers and students, sometimes including parents or administrators. Or they might call for a student to sit with a circle of peers who were harmed in some way by something that student did. A teacher may use a restorative circle at the beginning of class periods to clear up any tension and get students on the same page.
At the heart of the restorative approach is a series of questions: What happened? Who was harmed? What would help to repair the harm?
"The aim is to reach a resolution at the end ... restoring a trust, addressing a harm, making amends," said Thalia Gonzalez, a professor at Occidental College who studies restorative practices in schools.
Gonzalez said restorative justice is being used in schools in at least 27 states.
"There has been an explosion in the last three to five years," she said.
She said long-term studies with control groups are underway, and early data look promising.
"You see reductions in suspensions, reductions in expulsions and other forms of punitive discipline, you see improvement in school climate and positive impact on attendance, tardies and academic achievement," Gonzalez said.
When Denver implemented its new policies in 2008, it adapted the approach taken by Denver's correctional system, where Tim Turley had been chief probation officer for the Denver Juvenile Probation Office.
"I saw results from bringing kids and victims together," Turley said. "To have kids understand harm, the effects of harm and how to fix it." Turley left retirement to work for Denver Public Schools training teachers and staff how to use restorative practices.
"Conflict is inevitable," Turley said. "How you resolve it is key."
Restorative practices are a toolkit for addressing conflict. Turley said teaching discipline in school is as important as teaching English or math because "we're teaching kids how to solve problems in relationships other than physically." He said when young people learn how to listen, explain themselves and compromise with others, it instills self-control and empathy, skills that will serve them their whole lives.