Mending fences: Administrators hope new policy will help students learn from mistakes

Mending+fences%3A+Administrators+hope+new+policy+will+help+students+learn+from+mistakes

Grace Vance

A new disciplinary measure known as “restorative practices” has been set in place for RBHS this year. Starting in the juvenile justice system almost 20 years ago, it was first referred to as “restorative justice.” The idea of it is that students’ behavior does not always change with consequences alone. Rock Bridge is among many other schools across Missouri that are beginning to use this practice.
Assistant principal Tim Baker said the idea behind restorative practices might seem like common sense, only it will not just repair a damaged relationship but also reduce the tension between the students. If either student isn’t holding a grudge over the incident, it is less likely to become worse over time.

“Restorative practices” will become part of the arsenal of disciplinary techniques principals use as they work with students who have violated rules.

The idea is that students’ behavior does not always change with consequences alone. Rock Bridge is among many other schools across Missouri that are beginning to use this practice. The concept began in the juvenile justice system almost 20 years ago when it was first referred to as “restorative justice.”

Assistant principal Tim Baker said the idea behind restorative practices might seem like common sense, only it will not just repair a damaged relationship but also reduce the tension between the students. If either student isn’t holding a grudge over the incident, it is less likely to become worse over time.
“Restorative practices are really intended to restore whatever relationship has been damaged by whatever behavior occurred,” Baker said. “So really what we’re talking about is conferencing on a level of restoration, trying to repair the damage that was caused by whatever the offense was by not focusing on what the offender did, but on how it affected them and others.”

“Restorative practices are really intended to restore whatever relationship has been damaged by whatever behavior occurred.” said.—Assistant Principal Tim Baker”

Before, Baker said, if a student got in trouble for insulting a peer, the offender would be punished, but there would never be any follow up on the situation. The student and the peer’s relationship would always be damaged, he said, because the peer might still be hurt in some way by what the student did. With restorative practices, the goal would be to bring the two students together and repair the relationship before any interaction in class so it wouldn’t become more of a problem later.
To restore the relationship in a non-threatening way, he said, a conference might include questions like, ‘how did it feel when this person offended you in this way’ and avoid speaking directly about the incident itself. This tactic has more impact on the wrongdoer than punishing them with a consequence.
“The best proof the old way was less effective is that discipline numbers never got any better,” Baker said. “It seems like every year we have just as many incidents as the year before.”
So far in 2014, there have been 53 students with 20 or more office referrals, which Baker said is the same five to ten percent of the school population. He said this tells them that whatever consequences the school is giving to students is having little or no impact on them, as they continue to do things like skip class or get into trouble in other ways.
The school is trying this approach, Baker said, because research suggests it will reduce the recidivism rates, or repeat offenders, much more powerfully than consequences.
Senior Mallory Bolerjack agrees that not every student responds well to consequences. She said restorative practices is an effective way to target those students and create a safer environment in school.

“I think its a really good idea,” Bolerjack said, “[and a way] of making sure kids know how to accept others and know what’s wrong and right.”

It will also encourage students to become more respectful and responsible toward others.  This allows the whole school to work together and learn more effectively. It will aid students, she said, because it will help restore issues and teach them the appropriate way to react to situations.

“Essentially I feel like it’ll decrease the amount of [possible] bullying,” Bolerjack said, “or decrease the amount of fights we have because these students will understand how they are supposed to react to certain situations.”

Although restorative practices will benefit students by teaching them how to confront issues, many teachers have had problems with the processes during class to follow through with these methods.
Science teacher April Sulze said the idea behind these disciplinary measures is great, but she has mixed feelings about the steps teachers have to take with these changes. To follow procedure for disruptive students in the classroom, teachers must conference with the student and communicate this with the parent, then determine an action plan with the student which might include a consequence assigned by the teacher. If students don’t want to change their behavior, Sulze said, the follow through of this process can be very time consuming.
“I think that with certain students it can be very effective,” Sulze said. “However, there are always students who will either not cooperate or their behavior will not change no matter what you do.”

“Essentially I feel like it’ll decrease the amount of [possible] bullying or decrease the amount of fights we have because these students will understand how they are supposed to react to certain situations.”—Senior Mallory Bolerjack”

Sulze has always tried to handle behavioral issues among students by conferencing with the students’ and contacting their parents. Usually she will contact their parents through an email the student helps write. If the behavior doesn’t change she will use the office referral system.
Since the school has adopted this method of discipline, Sulze said she has not seen any improvements in student behavior. There is particularly one hour, she said, where there are a lot of student behavior problems that need to be addressed immediately and class time cannot be taken to do appropriate restorative practices. When a student’s behavior is disruptive and defiant, she said the student needs to be removed from the classroom quickly. This ensures that the rest of the class can continue learning.
Although Sulze has had difficulty with restorative practices, she said she still sees the benefits it provides for the students.
“I think that the premise behind the practice is good.” Sulze said, “It can teach students how to communicate effectively and how inappropriate actions can lead to real consequences that can permanently affect themselves or others.”

This practice will not only improve school disciplinary rates, Baker said, but also benefit the students involved. One way it does that, he said, is through respecting the student’s time and teaching them something along the way. Part of the school’s goal is for students to understand how their actions affect other people, rather than just themselves.

“This is a lot less disrespectful way of dealing with a problem,” Baker said. “You give somebody a consequence and they just don’t learn from that, there’s no learning involved, right?”
Restorative practices is not needed for every situation, but when a person is wronging another, he said, it has been proven to be successful if done well. In the age group of high school, said Baker, many students act before they think, which partly results in a lot of profanity around the school. While this doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal at the time, he said, it is very harmful to be called a name like that. Baker said this situation would be an example of when there would be a restorative practice conference with the students involved and potentially another adult depending on the situation.
Administrators plan to hold most restorative practice conferences in the newly located offices spread throughout the building, said Baker, which allows the talks to be more private than before when offices were all in the main office. Part of respecting people in general, he said, is the right for privacy.
While restorative practices is still very unfamiliar to the school, he said, administrators have gone through training, and plan to continuously learn from their results. Baker said these practices will remain a work in progress for all the schools that have recently started using them.
“You know, [until] you try it and do it,” Baker said. “You don’t really know how its going to work. But so far we’ve liked our results.”
By Grace Vance
What do you think of the new option? Will it help make the classroom more of a community?