In 2015, only one school in the region was using restorative practices to address student misbehavior. Since then, the method has spread rapidly and is now in an additional half-dozen schools across Puget Sound.
School leaders around the country acknowledge they need better ways to handle student defiance and other misbehavior that typically result in home suspension because that punishment does nothing to teach kids — either academically or socially.
The question is, what to do instead?
Nicholas Bradford, a mediator who works with divorcing couples as well as educators, believes the answer is restorative practices, an approach that asks both parties in a fight — whether teacher and student, or mugger and victim — to reach a deeper understanding through talk, rather than flat-out punishment.
Across the Puget Sound, a growing number of schools are trying it.
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“It was a no-brainer for the culture here,” said Shannon Nash, principal at Meeker Middle School in Kent, which had the highest discipline rates in the district when she took over last year.
Before, the standard response at Meeker had been in-school suspension. Students who had done wrong remained on campus in all-day study halls, sequestered from their friends but hardly encouraged to examine themselves.
“It was a place where kids would try to make up homework assignments rather than doing anything to change their behavior or to help the community,” said Saul Peterson, who oversees Meeker’s discipline program. “In my opinion, it was not much of a consequence.”
Restorative practices, on the other hand, force confrontation — both with oneself and with whoever has been hurt. Nash’s husband, who worked at nearby Mill Creek Middle School, saw Bradford’s presentation about it and came home jazzed.
In that way, through word-of-mouth and curiosity, restorative practices are beginning to take root in schools across Puget Sound.
In 2015, only Big Picture High School in Highline was addressing drug use, fighting and disobedience through the restorative approach, and it reported significant improvements. But most other schools in the district were using in-school suspension. And they have since run into enough difficulty that Superintendent Susan Enfield is retooling the program to incorporate restorative-style conversations, among other adjustments.
Meanwhile, at least three other districts — Federal Way, Kent and Renton — are embracing the restorative approach. And educators from Centralia, Bellevue and Lake Washington attended the kickoff of Bradford’s National Center for Restorative Justice earlier this month.
“We’re doing it because keeping more kids in the building is the law now,” said Ronald Mahan, principal of the Secondary Learning Center in Renton. He was referring to legislation passed last spring requiring schools to ensure that disciplined students are able to keep up with classwork.
Restorative justice was developed in prisons as a way for offenders and victims to attempt healing, and it has been particularly popular in juvenile-justice settings. It has also been controversial, seen either as too soft or too difficult to do well.
Bradford thinks schools — designed for relationship-building — are the ideal arena.
“I find teachers all over the area who are really interested in implementing this because it’s clear that you can’t punish first and then expect to build relationships with students,” he said. “We need to build a relationship first, then figure out what needs to happen to make things better.”
In Federal Way last year, four middle schools piloted restorative-practice programs.
“We had a 45 percent reduction in suspension and expulsion — that’s huge,” said Jerry Warren, principal at Illahee Middle School.
Like many educators, Warren had been a skeptic at first.
“I was one of those principals using the Student Rights and Responsibilities book as the law,” he said. “If a student did a certain number of behaviors, they got suspended. It was kind of a notch on my belt.”
Another school administrator — who is black, like Warren — challenged the principal, pointing out that African-American and Latino students were the ones most harmed by his approach.
Soon afterward, Warren visited Oakland and San Francisco, where schools have been using restorative practices for several years.
“To see it in real time gives you this hope that we really can do some different things,” he said.
The shift, however, has not been smooth. In large part, that is because restorative practices demand that teachers acknowledge their own role in a conflict, and that they engage with students who may have been disrespectful or threatening.
Still, Warren is committed.
“My keeping kids out of school was resulting in them falling farther and farther behind,” he said. “That really has started to change my thinking.”