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With DU Research, Denver Public Schools Reduces Suspension Rates

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Lorne Fultonberg

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Lorne Fultonberg

‘Restorative practices’ emphasizes relationships and community to manage classroom misbehavior

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Restorative Practices Circle

Picture a student sitting in a classroom, head down on the desk, refusing to pay attention. The teacher threatens discipline. The student doesn’t listen and instead, when prodded, snaps back, causing a serious disruption.

Anyone who has been in a classroom can probably predict the next part of the story: a reprimand, a trip to the principal’s office, and often, a suspension.

“It’s automatic,” says Yoli Anyon, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Social Work who studies K-12 discipline and social justice. “You talk back to your teacher, you get suspended. But you can’t isolate that interaction just to the student. There was something that happened to create a dysfunctional relationship.”

If traditional discipline is the more in-the-moment response to bad behavior, then the method Anyon studies, known as “restorative practices,” is akin to a microscope — focusing on the smaller, often-overlooked issues buried inside a grade school student.

Descended from indigenous communities, restorative practices provide a way to repair and rebuild relationships by focusing on dialogue, respect and communal trust. And as Anyon’s primary area of research, the methods are one answer to the inequities in school discipline.

GAO Report Statistic

Statistics show that black students are more likely to receive harsher punishments than their peers for comparable infractions. And while white and Asian students are reprimanded for more cut-and-dry violations — like truancy, smoking or drinking — when it comes to “subjective” offenses, like rude behavior, black students are punished more frequently and more severely.

For the last seven years, Anyon has partnered with Denver Public Schools to reverse those trends. The data she collects has informed the way DPS trains its faculty and staff, teaching them to look at students with challenging behavior from a different perspective.

A perceived troublemaker’s head may lie on the desk, for example, not because of disinterest, but because of the exhaustion that results from watching a sibling late into the night, while a parent worked an additional job.

“You start to make the story a little more complicated and who the victim is and who the offender is starts to get a little bit blurrier,” Anyon says. “The focus on the harm to the community and the idea that multiple people are responsible at least gives people the opportunity to talk about these issues in a different way. Restorative practices gives space to address that.”

To this point, her work has centered on alternatives for out-of-school suspensions. An initial grant allowed 12 DPS schools to begin experimenting with school-wide restorative practices, while a grant from the Barton Institute for Philanthropy and Social Enterprise funded an additional three.

According to the Barton Institute, this approach is getting results: In the 15 schools applying restorative practices, out-of-school suspensions have decreased 45 percent — a figure that dropped more dramatically for black students and students with disabilities.

Now, Anyon is turning her attention to the effectiveness of in-school suspensions in search of similar outcomes.

Allison Meier in a restorative practices circle

The solution may lie around Alison Meier’s patterned, circular rug. The DPS restorative practices district coordinator is seated on the edge, leading a training session. She looks up from the battery-powered candle flickering in the center and rings a chime, bringing this “circle” to order.

Joining Meier are educators from DPS and beyond. This simulation is an experiential class demonstrating the trust- and relationship-building that Anyon’s work has shown to be effective. Each facilitator has an individual iteration of the exercise. Some teachers begin and/or end each lesson with a brief discussion. Others engage their students with lengthier, in-depth conversation during class periods. But regardless of the details, Meier says, circles like these have emerged as a way to check in with students and resolve conflict or prevent future escalation in an inclusive and respectful manner.

“When restorative practices are implemented well, they shouldn’t just make school a place where students feel safe and welcome and included,” Meier says. “They should also be a place where families feel that way and staff feels that way. If we do this right, it will actually make all the stakeholders in a building feel like they are part of the community.”

In her circle, Meier fosters that community through consensual ground rules. The agreed-upon guidelines create the atmosphere in which participants can comfortably divulge their moods, share stories about their successes, reflect upon their struggles and honor those who have influenced them. A bevy of activities including dialogue, games and artistic projects sow an easygoing ambiance.

The exercises allow those who partake (this is merely an opportunity to participate, Meier stresses, not a requirement) to touch, talk, listen, write, read and connect with their peers.

“Talking pieces” dot the center rug, contributions from each member to share a meaningful personal object while establishing the order of conversation.

“One of the things I love about our partnership with DU is it echoes that idea of our education system is all of our responsibility. Knowing that we have this institution that is going to support us in this process, it’s just going to reinforce this idea that we’re all in this together. If we want to have a high-quality public education system, we all have to find ways we can support it.”

Allison Meier Restorative Practices District Coordinator, Denver Public Schools
DPS Logo

Ultimately, Meier and Anyon hope these circles can not only serve as reactions to classroom clashes, but proactive ways to establish relationships, create community and prevent conflict. Anyon’s data shows that restorative practices are working equally well for children of all racial identities. But as she continues to document districtwide progress, she realizes that there are still improvements to be made.

“The challenge is that for [restorative practices] to address disparities, it has to work better for students of color than it does for white students,” she says. “For it to actually impact disparities and reduce inequality, we have to find ways for it to be even more effective with the groups that are overrepresented in suspensions. And in my mind, that means addressing issues like implicit bias and discrimination in schools.”

To take on those issues, Denver Public Schools is embarking on a thorough process of interviewing students and educators in person, to measure the implementation of restorative practices. For Meier, DU’s research in “benchmarking,” as it’s known, is essential to making a meaningful and widespread change.

“One of the things I love about our partnership with DU is it echoes that idea of our education system is all of our responsibility,” Meier says. “Knowing that we have this institution that is going to support us in this process, it’s just going to reinforce this idea that we’re all in this together. If we want to have a high-quality public education system, we all have to find ways we can support it.”