In 1998 I was looking for a public school interested in experimenting with “restorative practices.”
Essentially that would involve adapting procedures and staff skills from our own CSF Buxmont youth-serving programs to be used in a public school setting.
I decided to present the idea and offer free training and consulting to the local high school administrators where my youngest child Katie still attended.
Joseph Roy and David Piperato were then principal and assistant principal at Palisades High School in Pennsylvania.
They were already familiar with our CSF Buxmont programs, having had a number of their students go there and return successfully to the high school.
Our offer was very timely because at the beginning of the school year they had launched the Academy, a new program to motivate young people who were struggling with behavior and academic performance.
The academic subjects were organized in support of students working on website designs, videos and fabrication projects for clients outside of school in the community.
Piperato acknowledged that “from the first day the program was as close to a disaster as you can imagine…
He said, We made a critical error: we addressed the content of the program, not relationships between teachers and students.”
Unaccustomed to the lack of structure when compared to traditional classroom settings, many students abused their newfound freedom, roaming the building and behaving badly.
The teachers, now facing new challenges, argued about what to do.
Roy and Piperato decided that they could use our assistance with the Academy immediately.
In light of our assertion that doing things with people is better than doing things to or for them, Piperato observed that this was an opportunity for us to test our theory in Palisades High School’s most difficult setting.
I later asked journalist Laura Mirsky to document the process at Palisades and other schools, so in this talk I rely heavily on her description of Safer Saner Schools, much of which appears in a book of the same name.
To their credit, Roy and Piperato realized that this was not going to be just a training program for teachers, but that they as leaders needed to be actively involved with the experiment from the beginning.
The teachers recognized that they first had to take care of themselves as a team and stop their bickering.
A colleague of mine said that “They needed to respect their style differences, be honest, practice what they preached and work on their issues: do all the things they were asking the kids to do.”
We showed them the continuum of possibilities offered by restorative practices, starting with affective statements and affective questions that are used both to share and to elicit feelings.
The teachers also learned how to use circles, one-on-ones between students and various kinds of group meetings.
They introduced “check-in” and “check-out” circles at the beginning and end of each 90-minute class period — an opportunity for students to build relationships by setting goals and sharing expectations.
Eileen Wickard, a teacher at the Academy said, “Restorative practices helped us help students see that they need to buy into the community that we’re building.”
Academy students began to express a strong sense of community:
“We’re a big family.”
“We’re all so different but we all work together.”
“If two people are arguing, a group of us will get together and talk to the people and try to work it through.”
“As a group we’ve managed to make ourselves more mature.”
The Academy’s success with difficult students and positive recognition from the local community caught the attention of other high school teachers who became interested in what Piperato jokingly called that “wacky touchy-feely stuff going on in the Academy.”
Roy and Piperato phased in restorative practices in the rest of the school over a three-year period in which we provided ongoing training and consulting.
They initially saw staff members as falling into one of three groups: “believers,” “fence sitters,” and “critics.”
The first year, we provided basic knowledge of restorative practices for the believers, teaching them to be a support group for one another.
Heather Horn pointed out that teachers used to complain to each other about kids and judge them, but they learned to discuss students’ behavior, rather than their personalities, and brainstorm as a group about how to respond.
John Venner said, “Before, it was almost a taboo. You never talked to another teacher about how they talked to kids. It was their own damn business in their own classroom. Now we find it very acceptable to hold each other accountable.”
By the second year the fence sitters recognized the positive effects of restorative practices.
By the third year those critics who had wanted evidence were convinced.
Other critics decided to retire rather than accept the new reality.
All teachers were encouraged to use restorative practices in their classrooms.
English teacher Mandy Miller told a story of a girl who felt that other students were getting in the way of her learning and asked for a circle to address the issue.
During the circle, the girl realized that she was actually causing most of the problem herself.
Miller said, “That was a really hard day and people were in tears, but since then the entire class has been getting along fine.”
A ninth-grade girl commented, “We do fun team-building activities in biology class to learn how to work with people you’re normally not used to working with.”
One of the interesting by-products of adopting restorative practices appeared in the 2001-2002 school year when high school statistics showed an increase in incidents of harassing behavior.
At first the leadership was dismayed but they realized that there weren’t more incidents — rather there were more incidents being reported because students felt they were in a safe place.
The guidance counselor Monica Losinno said, “Kids feel safe reporting it because they believe it will be addressed.”
The high school assigned a staff member to be available every period of the school day to respond to issues that arose and to facilitate restorative conflict resolution.
A ninth-grade boy said, “If kids get in a fight they have someone to help them work it out.”
A ninth-grade girl added, “We don’t get many fights.
I think there’s only been two all year.
Most people get along real well.”
Although we had by now demonstrated the value of restorative practices in a suburban high school, critics questioned whether restorative practices could work in a tough urban high school.
Ten years later, in 2008, we found ourselves at West Philadelphia High School — that for the last six years was on Pennsylvania’s Persistently Dangerous Schools list.
A television news reporter told us that on a slow news day he and his camera person would often park outside West Philadelphia High School because there was a good chance of a fight or a fire.
At the end of her first year as principal Saliyah Cruz sent the school’s assistant principal and a couple of teachers to attend a one-day conference organized by the International Institute for Restorative Practices.
Based on their enthusiastic response, she decided to try restorative practices in her school.
IIRP began training West Philadelphia High School staff in August 2008.
“The Transformation of West Philadelphia High School,” is a nine-minute video with no narrator.
It is comprised solely of comments by administrators, teachers and students.
They put to rest the question of whether restorative practices will work in the most troublesome and violent schools.
In the video assistant principal Russell Gallagher says that “As a result of restorative practices… our violent acts and serious incidents were down 52 percent, the largest change in the city.
This year so far, we’re down an additional 45 percent.”
One of the teachers in the video, Lieutenant James Cotton, the officer in charge of the high school’s R.O.T.C. officer training program, describes a restorative intervention that prevented a fight.
“We had two different cliques, and basically it boiled down to one girl looking at the other girl wrong…
We sat them down and we allowed each of them to tell exactly how they were feeling about what was going on in the school.
And when it was over with we found out that it was really a misunderstanding.
And so everybody felt good, and we went on about our business in a positive way.”
Another teacher, Marsha Walker, describes her personal quest for a better way to manage her classroom.
“We punish kids but we never really talk to them.
I personally have an issue with that as a teacher.
Sometimes you need to talk, and that’s what I think restorative practices gives us…
I needed to find something that would help me have a different kind of interaction with my students…
I can see the difference in my students, and I also see the difference in my behavior.”
In the video, teacher and coordinator Neil Geyette explains, “Building positive social culture is essential to the functioning of any school.
Content and material mean nothing without relationships.”
Cruz and Gallagher helped a new teacher who was struggling to maintain order in her classroom.
They ran circles with two of her classes and reported:
“The kids took it very seriously. They had some very clear and concrete things to say about their role in the class and why they maybe weren’t doing the things they should have been doing…
“I think the turning moment, and I could see it in the students’ faces, was when they realized they had a say…that they were going to be listened to.”
Students in the video offer heartfelt comments about circles.
“Before we had circles at our school there was a lot of fights, riots, problems. It was just a lot of confusion.”
“I think circles help because it expresses a student’s feelings and stuff more. Instead of violence and stuff, just talking in a circle could avoid violence.”
“Now that we have circles at our school, it is more like calm and collected, and we get to talk around our peers and staff respectfully and tell them how we feel and what’s the problem.”
“Circles have changed our class because we’ve had to talk to one another. It’s not just the teachers. It’s all of us together. So we’ve kind of had to come together as a team and talk.”
Lieutenant Cotton noted, “Restorative practices can work in tough urban schools, and it doesn’t get any tougher than West Philadelphia High School.”
He also correctly predicted that the school would no longer be on the Persistently Dangerous Schools list.
Since then our Safer Saner Schools training has been provided throughout North America and in multiple languages around the world.
The current challenge is to improve implementation — because the quality of implementation is the critical test.
One of the problems is that teachers fear it will be just another new thing.
Teachers describe their frustration with innovations that come with new administrators and fade away when they leave.
Another problem is the unhealthy pressure to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions without maintaining the quality of the restorative process.
A former big city high school teacher told me how angry her fellow teacher was with the school’s response to the theft of her purse.
She was required to attend a poorly run meeting in which the offending student only barely apologized, but his participation meant that he would no longer be suspended.
In the end it’s really not about reducing school discipline numbers but about creating schools with healthy relationships.
More than 75,000 students in 127 American schools were surveyed as part of a huge national longitudinal study of adolescent health.
Researchers who analyzed the data so far have asserted that: “Increasing evidence shows that when adolescents feel cared for by people at their school and feel like a part of their school, they are less likely to use substances, engage in violence, or initiate sexual activity at an early age.”
Two of the top four factors that research found essential to a caring school are positive classroom management and tolerant disciplinary policies — precisely what restorative practices in schools are designed to achieve.
But students don’t notice the school discipline numbers.
A 10th grader at Palisades High School after transferring from another school said, “One thing I noticed right way was the friendly atmosphere.”
A student at Kosciuzko Middle School in Hamtramck, Michigan observed that he never before heard of a school that didn’t have bullying.
That’s what students notice about a school that is safer and saner.