A method of handling discipline issues that one middle school started experimenting with four years ago has been so successful that all Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools are adopting the system.
McDougle Middle School saw major discipline referrals drop nearly 75 percent the year it started Restorative Practices techniques, which focus on repairing relationships. And the method quickly proved useful not just for discipline but for academics and dealing with disruptions to the school day.
“I think we do talk about the discipline portion of it and how it changes school culture in that regard,” said Stephen Rayfield, a language arts teacher and part of the two-person team that brought restorative practices to the school.
“But I would encourage everyone who knows anything about restorative practices not to discount the academic qualities,” he continued. “Because it has changed my practice as an educator, as a leader and as a human.”
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Restorative Practices draws from Native American and African traditions, Rayfield said. A big part is restorative circles, where the wronged and accused come together to discuss how to deal with an offense, or where a whole class can get together to discuss something.
McDougle held circles in every class the day after the Nov. 8 presidential election, a move that the school had planned no matter who won.
In a circle, said Wendy York, McDougle behavior and academic support specialist who also helped bring Restorative Practices to the school, the focus becomes relationships, not just punishment or who’s right or wrong.
“You can express your opinion,” McDougle sixth-grader Julia DePinto said. “I think it makes it much more friendly and open. If people have problems they know they can talk about them.”
‘School of hormones’
York and Rayfield first started talking to each other about Restorative Practices about five years ago, when McDougle had a higher number of in-school suspensions than administrators liked – “We are the school of hormones,” York said of middle school.
They became interested enough in the new direction that they talked Principal Robert Bales into sending them to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to the International Institute of Restorative Practices graduate school.
York said they traveled on a “less than shoestring budget” made up of funds from a grant from the Public School Foundation and a match from CHCCS.
York and Rayfield started using Restorative Practices at McDougle four years ago, and the number major referrals, which include referrals for in-school suspension, for out-of-school suspension and to the district’s Boomerang alternative-to-suspension program, shrunk to 17 in 2013-14 from 64 in 2012-13.
It has gone no higher than 18 in the years since.
After the initial success, York and Rayfield began training other McDougle teachers about Restorative Practices.
“Now when you’re called down to the discipline office,” York said, “you’re called down for a conversation.” There’s a conversation about what happened, she said, who’s been affected and how to make it right.
As students have become accustomed to the circles, they begin to ask for them themselves. Three years ago, a Latina student grew tired of hearing slurs used to describe Latinos and ask for a circle about the problem. It was three weeks before end-of-grade testing, but each class held a circle because administrators felt the problem was that significant.
The district has taken note of the success and has begun using Restorative Practices techniques in all middle schools, with plans to extend their uses into all schools.
Victoria Fornville, now a sophomore at Chapel Hill High, was an eighth-grader at McDougle the year the school began to uses restorative practices throughout the school. She said her class was not very close at the beginning of the school year, but that the new techniques worked to bring them together.
“I think it’s really made McDougle a better school,” she said.