Durham Public Schools to combat suspensions with restorative practices

"We want to make sure we're providing our students with strategies so that they can be successful and remain in school," says Nakia Hardy, deputy superintendent for academic services for Durham Public Schools.
"We want to make sure we're providing our students with strategies so that they can be successful and remain in school," says Nakia Hardy, deputy superintendent for academic services for Durham Public Schools.

About four years ago, Grace Marsh's presentation to Durham principals touting the benefits of restorative practices in schools landed with a thud.

"At the time, the principals didn't seem too excited," said Marsh, executive director of the Elna B. Spaulding Conflict Resolution Center, a community mediation center in Durham.

Whether principals are excited or not, restorative practices, which address students' conflicts by repairing their relationships instead of punishing them, are coming to all middle schools and comprehensive high schools.

It's part of Superintendent Pascal Mubenga's $5.5 million, five-year strategic plan to improve safety and academics in Durham Public Schools.

"We want to make sure we're providing our students with strategies so that they can be successful and remain in school," said Nakia Hardy, the district's deputy superintendent for academic services.

Restorative Practice Centers will replace In-School Suspension (ISS) at all nine middle schools, the district's five comprehensive high schools and Durham School of the Arts.

DPS will spend nearly $800,000 a year to hire restorative practices coordinators at the schools who will help other staffers teach students to identify behaviors that are not helpful or constructive, and then replace them with healthier, more productive behaviors.

For example, a student constantly yelling out answers to questions, preventing others from responding, would learn behaviors such as raising a hand, standing up when wanting to speak or showing a number with fingers tot communicate how urgently he or she wants to speak.

Reducing suspensions

DPS believes restorative practices will help reduce the percentage of students suspended from 8.44 percent during the 2016-17 school year to a goal of 4 percent by 2023.

"I'm so happy to hear that," said Marsh, who mediates conflicts between suspended students who elect to attend Rebound, a nonprofit that serves students on short-term suspensions. "What I like about restorative practices is that it doesn't assign guilt or punishment."

Marsh said when a student commits an offense, it's important that he or she understands how what they've done affects other people.

Students learn, for example, that if they disrupt a class, the teacher can't teach and other students can't learn, she said. Parents have to take time off from work to meet with teachers and administrators to discuss the bad behavior.

After fours years of experimenting with restorative practices, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools adopted them for all of its schools. McDougle Middle School saw major discipline referrals drop nearly 75 percent the year it started restorative practices techniques.

Stephen Rayfield-Bates, a language arts teacher at McDougle who helped bring restorative practices to the school, told The Herald-Sun in December that the educational benefit of restorative practices are sometimes overlooked.

“I think we do talk about the discipline portion of it and how it changes school culture in that regard,” Rayfield-Bates said. "“But I would encourage everyone who knows anything about restorative practices not to discount the academic qualities."

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Higher rates

School suspensions are much talked about in Durham because children of color are suspended at a much higher rate than white children.

In February, DPS agreed to develop a plan to "ensure discipline referrals and consequences are appropriately and equitably applied regardless of race or disability status" as a resolution to a federal complaint filed by Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Civil Rights Project of UCLA. It alleged black students and students with disabilities in Durham schools were suspended more frequently than their peers, in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws.

"It's excellent that they are using restorative practices, which is needed before interrupting important curriculum times," said Jovonia Lewis, chairwoman of the Education Committee of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. "It's better to draw the kids in, and closer, instead of pushing them away, especially since we know that implicit bias pays a major role in disparities in discipline practices."

Ronda Taylor Bullock, director of we are (working to extend anti-racist education), a Durham-based nonprofit that provides anti-racism training, said she believes program coordinators will ensure that the school leaders take restorative practices seriously.

"I hope it results in some positive outcomes for students and teachers," she said.

Antonio Jones, a school board candidate in the last election, said he supports restorative practices and hopes school leaders will embrace them.

"My concern is whether it's going to be accepted district-wide," Jones said. "I think some schools will embrace it while other schools will treat it as the flavor of the week. It'll depend on a school's culture."

Meanwhile, Marsh warned that the hoped-for change in culture won't happen overnight.

"It'll be five years out before you can say you've totally implemented the model," she said, "and then it's ongoing."

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645