In July, a report by the Waco Independent School District found that parents of students were moving their students out of the district, citing concerns about campus misbehavior. To help address those longstanding concerns, the district is looking at an emerging form of discipline being used in various cities across the state. KWBU’s Carlos Morales has more on the program.
The method is called restorative discipline and it’s being piloted at two of the district’s schools – Waco High and Carver middle school. Restorative discipline has been used across the country and takes its cues from a movement in the criminal justice system, where the goal is for offenders to redress the harm caused by criminal behavior, rather than being locked away.
And in schools the approach is similar, says Trudy Bender, Waco ISD's behavior intervention coordinator.
“The idea is rather than taking students and excluding them from their school community when they’ve committed some kind of an offense, instead you try to help them make restitution and repair the harm that’s been done to relationships," Bender says.
She says restorative discipline is a departure from the traditional disciplinary model used in schools, which generally revolves around zero-tolerance policies and suspension.
Within the last year, at Waco ISD schools there were roughly 1,600 in-school suspensions, which is when a student is removed from their classroom of instruction but remains in school. There were also about 1,150 out of school suspensions – that’s where a student’s sent directly home. Officials say all this time spent outside of a student’s primary source of instruction is difficult to regain. And while one of the goals of restorative discipline is to reduce those numbers – Waco ISD's superintendent Bonny Cain says it’s a process that takes time to develop.
“At first restorative won’t change that much because part of the restorative is internalizing that ‘here’s the way I should be interacting with other people.’ Well, that’s not instant pudding," Cain says.
According to a report by the Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative dialog at UT-Austin, restorative approaches can help to lower suspension. Their study follows Ed White Middle School in San Antonio. The school switched to a restorative discipline model in 2012. By the second year of the program in-school suspensions for conduct violations dropped 65 percent in 6th grade and 47 percent in seventh grade - results that Waco I.S.D. hopes to mirror.
Bender says to get that results, there first needs to be a culture change.
"Step one is a school that’s already built a culture in which student voices are valued and staff values," Bender says. "It’s humanizing for everyone in the school building, that they’ve already sat in school circles together and talked about things that were not discipline related, just getting to know each other.”
The Circles, Bender is referring to, are key to the restorative discipline process, but they’re also used to get students and teachers familiar with sharing and communicating with each other.
And that seems to be the biggest hurdle for restorative discipline across the country – finding teachers who buy into the process.
In the pilot program at Waco High and Carver middle, Bender says restorative discipline facilitators are there to ease that transition.
“So the restorative discipline facilitator will start working with a lot of staff because the staff’s behavior is really what changes first, long before the student behavior changes and so staff members, especially interested staff members. We like to start where the wood is dry, so we go where people are already interested and already restorative in their approach and really build on their success," Bender says.
Across the district there are other restorative-minded approaches and programs in other schools, like peer mediation and student court. If proven successful, the pilot program could be extended to other schools in the district.