Minnesota Department of Education describes how principals use restorative discipline practices

/ 30 April 2012 / jennifer

Alleen Brown, Twin Cities Daily Planet, April 30, 2012 –

A survey released recently by the Minnesota Department of Education will help state advocates for restorative justice better understand how school principals use restorative practices to address student behavior.

The survey was completed by 417 Minnesota principals, of whom 66 percent reported using restorative methods in response to some behavior problems. Whether that proportion represents an increase in restorative work is unclear, since this is the first survey of its kind.

Principals surveyed reported mostly using restorative methods in addition to, not instead of, suspensions. The finding is interesting, since some educators and activists point to restorative practices as a substitute for suspensions, which take already-struggling students away from learning.

The survey found that principals are most often the ones to initiate a restorative process in response to a suspendable action, and they’re more likely to do so if they’ve been trained and if restorative practices are in their school or district’s discipline policy.

Three-quarters of principals reported that restorative practices were not written into their district’s policies. St. Paul and Minneapolis Public Schools’ policies both do include restorative practices.

Restorative practices encompass a number of approaches that hold misbehaving students accountable by helping them understand the harm they’ve caused and helping them repair it.

In restorative circles, one of the most common models, adults and students involved in or affected by an incident sit in a circle and pass around a talking piece. When you hold the piece, you tell your side of the story. Typically, the circle adjourns with an agreement that readies the community to welcome the misbehaving student back into good standing. A restorative conference would work similarly, but might involve a smaller group of participants.

According to Minnesota Department of Education school climate specialist Nancy Riestenberg, MDE promotes restorative practices, because state research shows they work.

In 2001, Minneapolis’s Nellie Stone Johnson and Ramsey Fine Arts schools each received a grant to train teachers to use circles daily. At Ramsey, the initiative led to a 45 percent reduction in the number of suspensions between 2001/2002 and 2002/2003. Nellie Stone Johnson saw a 63 percent reduction and 508 fewer suspensions.

As happened with so many now-bygone initiatives, funding cuts ended those programs. Although districts like St. Paul and Minneapolis are increasingly encouraging schools to implement school-wide behavioral learning systems through the PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) framework, limited school resources and administrative turnover continue to challenge the spread of restorative school practices.

Still, Riestenberg said she’s seen restorative work become more common in schools over the ten years that MDE has promoted them. Lately, they’re linked to debates around not only suspensions but also bullying.

One survey taker described using circles to address playground bullying. Each of the bullies’ victims explained how the perpetrators’ actions affected them. With everything in the open, victims no longer felt isolated, and the severe incidents stopped.

In the past, those issues could have escalated to a suspension, which, Riestenberg pointed out, research finds ineffective. She said suspensions can actually increase incidences of bullying. They can lead to lowered academic achievement and decreased attendance. “The suspensions ended up making them feel so disconnected they didn’t want to come anymore,” she said.

“When I was a kid, when you were sent home in my community, you would clean out the barn,” she said. Today suspended kids are more likely to play video games. They may be alone all day.

Reducing suspensions could increase school budgets. The survey profiled a school in Oakland, California that went from losing $9,775 in attendance funding a year, to losing only $262 a year after implementing suspension-reducing restorative practices. Riestenberg said there’s no research that shows how much impact a suspension reduction would have in Minnesota, but school funding is tied to attendance.

“Students have to be held accountable for making mistakes,” Riestenberg said. “If you don’t give them the opportunity to wipe up their own milk that they spilled, you’re robbing them of the responsibility to learn that they can make a mistake, and they can fix it.”