The School District of Manatee County is exploring a new approach to student discipline.
On Thursday, almost every middle school and high school principal and several elementary school principals gathered at the Manatee Community Foundation for a day-long training on “restorative justice,” an alternative approach toward student discipline that emphasizes building relationships with students and understanding the motives behind behavior.
“There’s always a reason why someone is behaving the way they are behaving,” Lee Rush, an instructor with the International Institute for Restorative Practices, told the room full of administrators.
The philosophy encourages teachers and administrators to talk more with students. Rather than simply doling out punishment, seek to understand why the student did what they did. Explain to them how it impacted the class and the teacher. Suspend less, seek to understand.
“It’s a whole different mentality. Schools have become very punitive, and we are looking at changing that paradigm and dynamic to one that is more restorative and more dynamic,” said Sandra Pavelka, an associate professor at Florida Gulf Coast University and the director of the Institute for Youth & Justice Studies who attended the session.
One of the key strategies with Restorative Justice is sitting down with disruptive students and asking them questions. A business card lists a series of suggested questions for a teacher or administrator dealing with misbehavior.
▪ “What were you thinking at the time?”
▪ “Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way?”
▪ “What do you need to do to make things right?”
Teachers are encouraged to open themselves up to students more and to explain, within the appropriate boundaries, how they feel.
“This takes a little bit more time. It does take a little bit more time, but in the long run, teachers and students gain the understanding, build the relationships and understand moving forward what it means to build a stronger school community,” Pavelka said.
Director of Student Services Willie Clark said district leaders are “very interested” in learning more about the practice. He said using restorative justice would not mean students no longer get suspended or expelled, but it could lead to changes.
“I didn’t hear them say it means you don’t give a consequence, but it just may be a different consequence,” he said.
Clark said he still had questions about how the program could best be implemented in the midst of managing a classroom of children, but he said he wanted to learn more.
“You’re in a class and you’re teaching. You can’t stop teaching and do restorative justice right there, so it may mean that has to happen in a different setting,” Clark said. “I’ve got to see how that plays out. I want to hear about how other districts are doing it.”
School Board of Manatee County Chairman Charlie Kennedy has been an advocate for exploring the approach. A former history teacher, Kennedy said he thinks the philosophy would be most effective in schools with high numbers of students being suspended and referred. And he said the approach wasn’t aimed at lowering the number of students receiving consequences.
“It’s not about data, it’s not about making our data look better,” Kennedy said. “It’s about improving our relationships with kids and making their relationships better. And then hopefully they take that home with them.”