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How Triangle schools are trying to reduce black and Latino student suspensions

Orange County Schools may train bus drivers and cafeteria workers, along with the rest of its staff, in the latest local push to find alternatives to suspending students who misbehave.

The Board of Education recently agreed to pay Cambridge, Massachusetts-based consulting firm Engaging Schools $57,000 to develop a district code of conduct with restorative practices.

Restorative, or restorative-justice, practices draw from Native American and African traditions. A big part is restorative circles, where the wronged and accused come together to discuss how to deal with an offense.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools introduced restorative practices about five years ago and Durham Public Schools about four years ago. One CHCCS middle school adopted the method first and had such success reducing suspensions that the district has decided to use restorative practices at every school. DPS is using the method at all middle schools and comprehensive high schools.

Orange County Schools started looking at introducing restorative practices in 2015. Sherita Cobb, director of student support services, went to Seattle with CHCCS representatives recently to get training in the method.

The administration has been looking at using restorative practices, in part, to reduce suspensions among black and Hispanic students, who get suspended at higher rates than their white classmates.

The administration expects to bring the new code of conduct before the school board in April, and would begin training staff upon approval, Chief Academic Officer Michele Woodson said.

Changing mindsets

“I think that we can confidently say that our principals and [assistant principals] have bought into this work and are very eager to continue to get training and to have this level of support,” Superintendent Todd Wirt said. “I think it’s going to take time when you talk about eight [hundred] to 900 student-facing employees and how quickly mindsets change.”

The district is looking to the Syracuse (New York) School District, which worked with Engaging Schools to develop a code of conduct, as an example of where bus drivers have been trained in restorative practices to deal with discipline problems on the buses. But Orange County Schools spokesman Seth Stephens stressed the district is working with Engaging Schools to make its own policy, and not to copy any one particular model.

Board member Stephen Halkiotis emphasized the importance of getting all employees on board.

“Everybody in the school system has to be doing the same dance,” Halkiotis said. “They have to sing the same song – the cafeteria ladies, the custodians, the bus drivers. I don’t care who they are. The maintenance people. Transportation folks. Everybody has to sing from the same page.”

Halkiotis added that the superintendent will need to let the board know what the cost of training all those employees would be.

Board member Sarah Smylie asked how the administration can tell how much staff is buying into the restorative practices, or if they look at the movement as the same thing they’ve been doing with a different name.

“For me,” Cobb said, “I think we will see a difference in the way discipline is handled because this is not just about students, but this is also about adult actions as well. So, we will see a change in actions as well as student behaviors.”

Woodson said there will be data to document the change.

Matt Goad: mattgoad@gmail.com
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