Texas Schools Credit Restorative Justice Programs for Suspension Drops

One Houston middle school that has seen a 50 percent drop in out-of-school suspensions has two 35-minute sessions each week for teachers and students to discuss their feelings.
Published: June 4, 2018

A Houston middle school that implemented its own version of a restorative justice program has reported less three-day suspensions and overall happiness among both teachers and students.

This school year, Bammel Middle School began including two 35-minute sessions per week for teachers and students to meet and discuss their feelings at the beginning and end of each week. Principal La’Quesha Grisby attributes the school’s 50 percent drop in three-day out-of-school suspensions to the schedule change, reports The Texas Tribune.

Out-of-school suspensions at Bammel dropped from 94 last school year to 47 this school year. In-school suspensions still exist but instead consist of restorative circles for students to talk through their problems and come up with ideas on how to fix the damage caused by their actions.

“Sometimes those behaviors we see as discipline problems really are because the student is struggling with their academics,” Grigsby said. “We’re in a situation where we have to do something drastic because what we’ve been doing is not working.”

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Bammel joins the growing number of Texas schools that have adopted restorative justice programs in an attempt to prevent conflict and violence before it happens and to curb the disproportionate suspensions of students of color.

Ed White Middle School in San Antonio began a pilot restorative justice program in 2012 and has seen significant changes beyond decreased suspensions.

Prior to the program, in 2012, Ed White Middle School had one of the highest suspension rates in the North East ISD. By the 2013-2014 school year, the number of students who were suspended dropped 62 percent compared to 2012, according to Express News. The school also saw a drop in bullying and an increase in attendance rates.

Texas Education Agency Invested in Restorative Justice Programs

Several years ago, the Texas Education Agency invested $1.2 million to train school administrators in the entire state, beginning in those with the highest suspension rates. Using the grant money, Ed White educators were trained by the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue. Program director Marilyn Armour says when done correctly, restorative justice can change a school’s culture by building trust and deepening the relationships between students and teachers.

“It’s not an approach that’s focused on the bad kids,” she added.

One worry experts have, including Armour, is that some school administrators will adopt restorative justice as a quick fix instead of taking the time needed — which could take years — to convince teachers and students to buy into a cultural change.

“It’s going to go belly up” when done poorly, said Armour.

Bammel staff members were trained by specialists from the Harris County Department of Education on how to use community-building restorative circles and to resolve fights.

Sixth-grade teacher Antondria Davis passes a wooden “talking piece” around her classroom’s circle and requires each student to give some kind of input on the chosen topic. In one session sat in on by Grigsby, Davis discussed social media with her students.

Student Life Ford said being forced to express her feelings twice a week to classmates she didn’t know well has helped her communicate better outside of the classroom. Ford credits offering support to her best friend who seemed depressed to the circle sessions.

Grigsby hopes to expand the program by creating “academic circles” where students and teachers gather in small groups to discuss a book or movie as well.

Austin High School Sees Decrease in Suspension Rate, Increase in Graduation Rate

About two years ago, Akins High School in Austin was the number one high school in the state for suspensions and removal of students, says principal Brandi Hosack. Following input from staff members, Hosack implemented a restorative justice program with help from an education advocate, reports KXAN.

“Over the course of the last three and a half years, we have cut suspension rates — both in school and out of school — by close to 50 percent, we have increased the graduation rate by 7 percent, we have increased attendance rate by 3 percent,” she said.

Hosack attributes the improvements to creating a culture where all students and teachers feel their emotions are legitimate and what they have to say is valued.

Round Rock ISD worked with the same education advocate to implement the program in several of its schools.

Grisham Middle School principal Paige Hadziselimovic said her school began creating mini-communities called “houses”, which she described as similar to those from Hogwarts, the fictional school in Harry Potter. Hadziselimovic believes the houses boost a sense of connectedness and give students a network of mentors among both peers and staff.

In the spring of 2017, Hadziselimovic trained her staff on restorative justice after a record number of disciplinary records were filed. She said most of her students who got in trouble and were sent home were repeat offenders. However, that changed after the switch in philosophy, said Hadziselimovic.

“Of those top 10 offenders, nine of them returned to our school this year, of those nine students, only one is on my top offender list from this year, so that’s pretty concrete data to say that doing the restorative practices, and the relationship and community building that comes from houses and positive referrals changes behavior,” she said.

During the 2016-2017 school year, there were 422 student discipline referrals issued at the school. This school year, that number dropped to 155.

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