Posts Tagged RESTORATIVE PRACTICES

Chronically Misbehaving Kids Suffer Mental and Social Disease

Published by EducationNews.org — Sometimes these students get a chance to  shake off the ‘bad kid’ self-image.  Too often not.

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Naturally, Faina Davis, a lawyer and head of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), would have a happy-ish story about what happens when troubled kids connect with adults who practice Restorative Justice.  Far more often, kids misbehave, get punished, misbehave, get punished, in an endlessly destructive cycle.  But Restoration works to interrupt this cycle by solving whatever was driving the misbehavior in the first place.

An 11th grader, whom Davis calls Cameron, transferred into a Restorative Oakland high school.  He’d already become, as she put it, one of those “scary-dude kids” with saggy pants, a black hoodie and a horrible attitude.  Such charmers come to her through the Oakland’s schools, which have become demonstration sites for restorative justice.

On his first day at the new school, Cameron met with the school’s Director.  Cameron probably expected, per usual, to get yelled at, berated, and threatened with dire consequences for any more misdeeds.  Instead, this Restorative Director put aside the thick folder of records of Cameron’s academic failures, suspensions and arrests.  Start fresh.  Cameron couldn’t suddenly become an angel.  But together he and the Director would deal with the obstacles in the way of building a brighter, healthier path for this angry adolescent.

Happy ending: a kid who never cut a break finally got one.  Someone intervened in Cameron’s history of failure to pull him off the school-to-prison assembly line.  Cue sunset.

But Cameron was already a hot mess. 

It would be so simple, so straightforward if we knew that “scary-dude” kids were just born that way and not cultivated by circumstances to become a defensive, aggressive pre-prisoner.  Davis only gives us a taste of Cameron’s circumstances.

He was first suspended at the ripe old age of four.  To retrieve his own confiscated candy, he’d snuck out of the pre-school building and crawled back in through a window.  You might think a four-day suspension was serious overkill given his age and crime.  But more importantly, the suspension wasn’t going to get to any root of a problem.  Nor did it.

By 11th grade Cameron had racked up 150 school suspensions and lots of arrests.  His first arrest was for causing a middle-school milk fight in the cafeteria.  Yes, a milk fight in a large public school can escalate to such mayhem as to be dangerous.  Still.  Chronic misbehavior is the equivalent of a kid waving his arms and screaming:  “Help me!  I’m in trouble.  My family’s in trouble.” But no, he’s just punished.  Research would argue that Cameron’s suspension record strongly predicted his arrest record.  He was on a hamster wheel of recidivism.  Not until that Oakland Director did it slow down.

But what took so long?  Clearly his family had little capacity to support him.  Does he have PTSD from surviving as a kid in harsh, poverty-steeped background?  What’s been the price so far?  Can his “bad kid” self-image be repaired?  Whatever the answers, the kid has already paid a steep price.

Public systems allow kids’ troubles to fester way, way too long.

Since pre-school Cameron was a neon sign of trouble.  But schools, justice, and social services only wake up when such a kid has crossed a legal line, stolen a car, robbed a Quickie Mart or dealt drugs.  Schools only take notice when the kid is so disruptive as to be sent to “an alternative program,” segregated with the other bad kids “whose needs are better served elsewhere.”  Having crossed the line, the bad kid’s fate is sealed — end of story.  We blame the kid.

Increasingly other countries are using Family Group Conferencing to help kids like Cameron.  A facilitator brings all relevant parties to the table to figure out how to solve any and all issues that will reduce or eliminate recidivism.  Over time, countries like Australia, New Zealand, among many others, get once-siloed agencies — housing, mental health, police — to act as a team.  Currently a kid and her family will touch many agencies without any of them knowing what the other is doing — very ineffective and wasteful.  Also, Americans are more squirrely than most about breaching the family’s privacy.  The presenting issue is the kid, but she’s not growing up in isolation.  We can’t solve poverty, but we can help all families become healthier and more resilient in the face of poverty or other adversity.  Allowing family dysfunction to fester is a crime itself.  Breaching the sanctity of the home for less than criminal reasons may be an American sacrilege, but not doing so is no favor to the kids.

Suspensions and juvenile arrests are symptoms.  Chronic recidivism is a full-blown social disease.  Recidivism of any negative behavior is a huge, waving red flag.  Davis and RJOY work on the Oakland schools so they aren’t making things worse.  It’s not schools’ fault that things have already gotten as bad as they are.  But right now there isn’t a social-service system the public can hold responsible for letting kids languish.  There should be.

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Always Model Kindness, Especially to Children

Published by EducationNews.org — The kindest response to unwanted behavior is to ask good questions.

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

The trim, tall elementary teacher, whom we’ll call Ms. Larch, paused before answering the question that had been posed to everyone in the circle.  Larch was among a group of teachers from all levels in a Restorative Practices (RP) training.  RP, in super brief, are interpersonal techniques that promote healing and connecting instead of disciplining by hurtful punishment.  The question at hand was: Since our work together last week, what have you been thinking about Restorative Practices?  Just a thought, a take-away, something you’ve noticed.

The mood of the group was bubbly.  Taking turns, answers came quickly – and then the pace came to a halt with Larch.  After a deep breath, she said,  “I noticed the hallways.”  The group fell silent, waiting to find out what on earth she meant.

A 14-year veteran, Larch has mainly taught 4th grade.  After working in a suburban school, she chose to take a position in a diverse, more challenged school.  She’d been there nine years now and was no stranger to their bustling hallways.  But in the prior week, for the first time, she found herself standing still and listening.  Through the new RP lens, the hallway noise had a harsh, barky quality, driven by edgy adult voices.  The kids paid little attention to the adults, which only increased the volume of the bark.  Suddenly the hallways seemed hard on the kids.  How does one person change such a thing?

During my many years of writing about education, I’ve observed hundreds of schools, though not hers.  I’ve been in many such hallways, flowing with negative, military-style commands:  “Don’t run.”  “Be quiet.”  “Stop it!”  I get that teachers juggle many pressures and get frazzled.  And harsh hallways are by no means exclusive to low-income public schools.  Communities, of every stripe, might insist on zero-tolerance orderliness.  In the name of order, all sorts of kids get steeped in adult anger, frustration and impatience.

But does command-and-control discipline teach social skills?

A recent Atlantic Magazine piece, Teaching Traumatized Kids, focused on Lincoln High in Washington state, an alternative school designed to help kids whose troubled behavior was known to be driven by trauma.  But why need a diagnosis?  Every school should just assume the presence of trauma, among kids and adults alike, and be prepared to prevent and respond well to misbehavior triggered by trauma.  Interestingly, every single one of Lincoln’s techniques were what we’d call Restorative Practices.  They call them “kindness,” which is fine by me.  A rose by any other name smells just as sweet.  I’m totally down with kindness.

Restorative Practices promote good relationships and strong, supportive communities.  They prevent and de-escalate conflict.  Lincoln’s “teachers and staff follow a few deceptively simple rules: Don’t take anything the student says personally and don’t mirror their behavior with an outburst of your own. The teachers give students time to calm down, often in the principal’s office or a special ‘quiet room.’ Later, they inquire about what might be bothering them and ask if they want to talk about it.”

Yes, ask questions.  Lately I’ve been thinking that the kindest response to unwanted behavior is to ask a whole bunch of good questions.  Not “Whadya do that for?”  But something like:  “You seem off.  What’s up today?”  And even that’s not completely kind unless delivered in a low register of your voice, calmly and with good eye contact.  Be careful not to sound like you already know the answer.  No, kind questions don’t defuse tension every time.  But they give everyone, adult or kid, traumatized or merely upset, the chance to recover by thinking through what’s going on with them and whatever upset them.  Good questions can provide gentleness.

Years ago I visited an urban elementary school that used music for their hallway transitions.  When the public address system played soothing, upbeat classical music — instead of those maddening bells — kids finished up and moved on to lunch, art class or wherever.  The music set a tone.  The teachers, while watchful, trusted the kids to be self-regulated.  The hallway bustled, but sweetly.

Kids take their cue from the adults. 

Children of all ages learn far more from adult modeling than they do from formal instruction.  Too often we forget that children are organic, living beings.  They need human forms of sunlight, shade, nourishing soil and proper amounts of water.  A harsh hallway is not a good medium to grow thriving, self-regulating kids.

We could actually sooth our fearful, angry culture if each of us were more mindful of being kind.  Kindness is not easy.  It takes thought and a commitment to watching how we treat each other.  Kids who have a positive experience in school hallways, not to mention school itself, will grow and learn differently than those who do not.

 (Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Winning the Discipline Wars Takes Restoration

Published by EducationNews.org — Kicking the kid out doesn’t really hold the kid accountable or teach him how to behave.

(Photo: Youtube, Creative Commons)

In Fordham Institute’s weekly Flypaper blog, David Griffith offers a tantalizing hope in a piece called “How to end the discipline wars.”  He asks, “Is there a more annoying manifestation of our political and cultural divisions than the debate over school discipline?”  Good question.

He outlines what he and I both find to be a weirdly polarized, even adversarial, set of attitudes towards discipline.  And he says he has a sensible resolution.  I read on with relish.

To understand the “war,” understand its combatants.  On one hand are the schools whose priority is the sanctity of student learning.  Not unreasonable.  Students who are on task deserve to be free of disruptions by miscreants who are not.  So, these “no excuses” schools are unrepentant about responding to misbehavior with strong negative reinforcement, including suspension, expulsion and a variety of punishments.  Their techniques include shaming, such as posting students’ names in yellow for those on disciplinary warning and red for those who will be punished.  Many parents appreciate the strict orderliness of schools.

On the other hand, Griffith points out, is the growing restorative practices/justice movement, which works to get to the root of the misbehavior.  Is the kid signaling that she’s got issues at home or mental-health problems that need addressing?  Is his incessant swearing learned in a home that swears constantly?  Or is it willful rottenness?  The consequences needs to respond to the reason for the misbehavior.  The if/then legalism of traditional discipline systems have prescribed punishment for each infraction – but it fails to teach, heal or solve problems.  How can the misbehavior be prevented from happening again unless we know what triggered it?

Because of its focus on healing, teaching, and cooperation, restoration is more work on the front end.  But the if/then approach wins only short-term compliance, at best.  At worst, it can cause resentment and disengagement.

Griffith’s solution to punishment is to create “alternative learning settings.”

Oy.  So, the solution is to sequester the “bad kids” where they won’t disrupt the so-called “good kids.”  Griffith admits that this is not a radically new idea.  True.  Education as an industry often gets rid of the unwanted kids by creating separate “programs targeted to their needs.”

Spin it all you want, but ostracism is punishment, plain and simple.  And the programs I’ve seen look for all the world like prison prep.  Still, Griffith says, “I think it’s time for a broader and more honest conversation about alternatives to suspension that honor the majority’s right to an education.”

Ah, but herewith lies the rub:

Define the line between the good and the bad kids.

On a given day, school staff can point out those kids who are doing what they should and those who aren’t.  The distinction is clear.  But it’s a snapshot in a kid’s life.  Years ago one of my kids’ friends was a goody-two-shoes girl — who soured overnight.  When her parents told her they were getting divorced, she acted out.  Her behavior became atrocious; her manner rude; her grades slipped; she ran from class and she ran from home.  She was a serious pain to get back on track.

But Griffith’s solution for her schooling would have been to give her an “alternative learning setting.”  She would have been with the other disruptive kids to protect students whose rights to an education she was, in fact, violating sometimes.  This would have made her situation far worse.

Now imagine seriously traumatized kids whose emotional wounds are far deeper than hers were.  “Alternative placements” block any chance of them learning community-appropriate behavior from the kids who can model cooperating with others.  And forgive me, but “sequestering” is another word for “segregation.”  The violent kid living with a violent father does not need to be segregated with other kids who might also be super angry.  It’s convenient for the adults, but it’s not good for the kid.

Don’t kick them out, lean in with them.

Setting up programs to manage kids outside of their regular classrooms is expensive.  And ineffective.  And who wants to be such a group’s teacher?  An actually new idea would be to spend those same big bucks, but effectively, on specialists — specifically, restorative specialists.  These trained workers would accompany the disruptive kid to class for as long as necessary.  They would teach, model and support desirable behavior, but also prevent her from disrupting teaching and learning.

Kicking the kid out doesn’t really hold the kid accountable or teach him anything.  Most kids who have the mental capacity would work on acquiring better social skills, if only to shake what feels like a babysitter.  Those seriously challenged with meeting expectations will have a tutor.  In both cases, the help should be as temporary as possible.

By all means, make sure all kids have the fullest possible opportunity to learn and thrive — including “bad” kids.  Teaching them to manage their own behavior is the biggest favor we can do for them and us.

 (Photo: Youtube, Creative Commons)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

 

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At Last! A Review of Research on Restorative Justice In Schools

Published by EducationNews.org — Early studies of RJ programs in the US show their impact in reducing suspensions and harmful behavior.

restorative_jusitce

Local Restorative Practices/Restorative Justice (RP/RJ) initiatives have been starving for research on America’s efforts to implement programs.  The large body of evidence showing the ineffectiveness of punishment doesn’t seem to make an adequately compelling argument for supporting Restoration.  And international research, while positive, has limited utility because each country’s educational system is somewhat different from each other’s, making comparisons hard.

So I’m relieved that the Robert Wood Johnston Foundation published a review of the existing literature this past February.  Restorative Justice in Schools: A Research Review concludes that overall, Restorative Justice (RJ) has been showing promising results.  “Teachers who implemented RJ frequently had better relationships with their students. The students felt respected by their teachers, and teachers generally issued fewer referrals.”  Those of us in the field have known this for some time.  Now we can say so with some clout, although the authors concede that this research is still “in its infancy.”

What is Restorative Justice in Schools?

There is no standardized definition of RJ, so the heavily-footnoted report turns to The National Centre for Restorative Approaches in Youth Settings.  They define it as “an innovative approach to offending and inappropriate behavior which puts repairing harm done to relationships and people over and above the need for assigning blame and dispensing punishment. A restorative approach in a school shifts the emphasis from managing behavior to focusing on the building, nurturing and repairing of relationships.”

In other words, RJ gets away from a myopic focus on guilt or innocence and works on reknitting relationships and community.

A summary of the obstacles to implementing RJ in schools:

The report states, “RJ requires staff time and buy-in, training, and resources that traditional sanctions such as suspension do not impose on the school. With RJ, teachers are often required to perform duties traditionally outside of their job description, such as attending RJ trainings, conducting circles during instruction time, and spending more time one-on-one talking with students. Some educators and other stakeholders are resistant to RJ because it is sometimes perceived as being “too soft” on student offenses. Finally, while RJ programs will certainly vary by the size of the school and scope of the program, some researchers suggest that a shift in attitudes toward punishment may take one to three years, and the deep shift to a restorative-oriented school climate might take up to three to five years.”

The critical issue of racial disparities

Punitive sanctions have the toxic effect of driving students — particularly minority and poor students — out of school altogether.  Furthermore, research shows significant disparities in exclusionary punishment for racial minorities and students with disabilities. “For example, minority students are suspended three times more than White students… A study from one Texas district that found African American students were 26.2% more likely to receive out-of-school suspension for their first offense than White students. Students who are suspended, all things being equal, are more at risk for poor attendance, inability to progress to the next grade, failure to graduate, and subsequent involvement in the juvenile and adult justice systems.”

The disparities might be the result of the growing use of law-enforcement methods “(e.g., armed police or security forces patrolling the grounds, metal detectors, security cameras, locker searches)… These procedures have led to students perceiving that their schools are like prisons and that they are viewed as criminals committing crimes, especially as they are designated as ‘suspects’ and ‘under investigation.’”

A few images of RP/RJ’s impact

RP/RJ has been most successful where the programs have stood the test of time, grown and become sustainable — such as some in California, Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.  But RJ programs or models can be successful whether implemented in public, private, or alternative schools, in urban or suburban environments, in one school or every school in a district.

“All the empirical studies we reviewed report a decrease in exclusionary discipline and harmful behavior (e.g., violence) after implementing some type of RJ program.

For example, (one researcher) reports an 84% drop in out-of-school suspensions among sixth graders in one Texas school during the first year RJ was introduced, and a 19% drop in all suspensions… Denver schools that implemented restorative circles and conferencing report a 44% reduction in out-of-school suspensions. They also report an overall decrease in expulsions across the three-year post-implementation period.  In Oakland, Cole Middle School experienced an 87% drop in suspensions across the first two years of implementation compared to the prior three years; expulsions were eliminated entirely after RJ was put in place. More recent figures from Oakland suggest continued success, with a 74% drop in suspensions and a 77% decrease in referrals for violence during a two-year follow up.”

Not too shabby.  The report notes that other large-scale research is taking place now and that more hard data will be available within the foreseeable future.  In the meantime, for those looking for an “evidence-base,” the gold standard for getting grants and credibility, this worthy report is a welcome, if early, addition.

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Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Communities Create Their Own Safety; Police Only Help

Published by EducationNews.org — We can fall into the habit of thinking the responsibility for certain problems belongs to someone else.

police

David Karp, who directs Skidmore College’s Project on Restorative Justice, tells this story:  Some time ago, a student, whom we’ll call Sarah, came to class one day visibly upset.  She’d been “harmed,” in the language of Restorative Justice (RJ), so her plight was appropriate for discussion in a criminal justice class.

Apparently she had been hanging with friends near their off-campus apartment when they looked up and saw a guy staring at them.  They noted that he was creepy, but whatever.  They dispersed.  That night Sarah and her housemates went to bed, but she heard noises in the living room.  She peeked to see what was going on and saw the same guy.  Freaked, she hid.  The guy left the house.  Sarah rallied her housemates, all of whom found another place to go that night.  The lock on a door had been broken, so the creep had just slipped in – and could again.

That was Sunday.  Monday was class.  She was totally rattled.  Her fellow students wanted blood, as is typical.  They wanted the cops to come and stake the place out so they could capture the guy and throw him into jail.

Problem solved.

Well, not so fast.  Yes, the police should certainly be alerted.  They should get a description of what is so far only a sketchy guy, and agree to keep an eye out for him and on that neighborhood.  They would urge getting the lock fixed.

But the police aren’t going to expend resources on a stakeout, a crime scene with finger-printing, an APB and the rest of what college TV-watchers think cops should do to protect fellow students.  The good professor’s burning question was:  Sarah felt violated, so what did she need right now?  How might Restorative Justice approach this situation?

Police do not make communities safe; communities make themselves safe. 

Communities set standards for behavior designed to help each individual feel safe.  The police are an extension of the community’s public safety efforts, but not a replacement for them — just as doctors support health, but are not replacements for healthy eating and exercise.  The rise of professional services has reduced the need to care for ourselves and one another.  So individuals fall into the habit of thinking that the responsibility for certain problems belongs to someone else.

In the Restorative Justice world, the community itself is the frontline of handing conflict and harm.  Yes, professional police do the heavy lifting of controlling uncontrollable behavior.  But safety is a product of building trust with one another.  Crime statistics notwithstanding, safety is a feeling.  These days, crime stats are down, but people still report feeling unsafe.  So without dumping the responsibility on the police, Karp asked, how can we help Sarah feel safe?

The class had to stop a moment to think.  That’s a way different problem than the one posed by our TV-infused faith in “trail ‘em, nail ‘em, jail em.”

One young man said he knew how to fix a lock and would do it after class.

Another student’s mother was a lawyer and knew about leases.  He could solicit his mom’s help getting the girl and her roommates out of that lease so they could get another place.

A third suggested all give Sarah their cell phone numbers so she can always reach out and get someone to be with her if she’s not feeling safe at home.

Sarah felt enormously supported.

So right there, in the midst of a class discussion, the offender’s side of the equation ceased to be the issue among the students.  Normally, in the current justice system, it’s the State versus Whomever.  But where’s the victim?  Who’s important here?  In traditional justice, victims have no voice in the proceedings, nor does anyone fuss about their need to heal.  But crime is a broken relationship between the victim and the offender.  And that rupture in turn rocks the trust of the community.

Karp says, “Even if there is a discussion about reparations (to victims), we don’t talk about rebuilding trust.  We build trust and community by allowing each member a voice in the process.”

Sarah came away from that class feeling far safer and more cared about personally than if the cops vowed some harsh action.  Cops would not have wrapped her warmly in their community embrace and brought their own personal resources to her aid.  This is no knock on cops; it’s just not what they do.  Sarah got super lucky that she was in that she was in a class that morning that wanted to be a community she could trust.  Individuals and communities would be better off caring for one another more intimately and using the professionals only when necessary.  We’d all feel safer if Sarah’s “luck” were more common.

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Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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San Antonio’s Restoration Center Weaves a Social-Support Fabric

Published by EducationNews.org — It can be done:  a coherent and effective system for dealing with mental illness.

san_antonio

Back in the 1970s, Leon Evans became the director of a community mental health center in San Antonio, Texas.  A social worker by training, Evans knew how to manage organizations that deal with mental illness, keeping afloat often-stressed frontline workers as they serve those suffering all manners of distress.  Little did he know that to succeed, he’d have to build an entirely new model.

Bear in mind that mental illness can mean anything from disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar to the frantic, terrified state of a woman whose partner suddenly abandoned her with three kids.  Mental illness is when a mind’s dysfunction is beyond the TLC of family and friends.

By 2000, San Antonio’s county government tapped Evans and his vast experience to run its entire mental health system.  Immediately this giant bear of a man, an ex-wrestler, looked around and realized that he, the mental health Centers, and the people they served were drowning.  Both the sheer numbers of people and the severity of their illnesses were increasing at rates defeating him and his budget.  Texas is 49th in the nation in funding on mental health.

The jails were stuffed to the gills with people whose real problems were substance abuse, PTSD, and other varieties of mental illness.  Evans couldn’t address his systemic problems without collaborating with the police and judicial system.  This was way easier said than done.  As Evans said in an NPR story, just getting folks to the table was by far the hardest part.  For starters, mental health workers don’t speak the same language as police.  Nor do they share the language, traditions and expectations of doctors, courts, transportation, housing, hospitals, town governments, child protective services or education.  Together they were a public services Tower of Babel.

It took a county judge to help Evans push them together. 

When they finally sat down together, of course, agency representatives found that they were serving many of the same clients — repeatedly and ineffectively.  Recidivism to jails, hospitals and drug treatments was and is astronomically high.  Clients have overlapping needs.  A flare-up of mental illness might precipitate homelessness, alcoholism, the commission of a crime.  Each problem had its own solution from a different agency or system.  The community mental health centers were only one of many systems.

These centers had grown as a response to the 1960′s public outrage sparked by exposes on scandalous hospitals that warehoused the mentally ill.  The resulting “deinstitutionalization” movement involved creating community-based mental health centers to manage the care for the mentally ill in far more humane ways, in home and neighborhood settings.  For a while the system worked well, or at least better.  But over time politicians chipped away at their resources, often reallocating funding to less stigmatized populations.  And no one anticipated the rapid fraying of nuclear and extended families, nor the decline of informal social supports like clubs and churches.  As money tightened, the demand for services grew.

Getting a fix on the public expenditures for mental illness is nearly impossible because the dollars are spread across different agencies’ budgets.  For example, most calculations fail to acknowledge that jails and prisons have become the largest mental health providers in the nation.  According to some estimates, well over half of all people incarcerated suffer some mental dysfunction — substance abuse issues, depression, PTSD, or other ailments.  And I would say that estimate is low.

To work towards a sustainable solution, Evans talked the relevant parties into pooling their money for what he called a “Restoration Center.”  The police contributed their drug seizure money.  The courts, jails, hospitals, and the county government also kicked in.

This money made it possible to run a large one-stop drop-in center where representatives from all the services are co-located.  It has 24/7 psychiatric services to stabilize the mentally ill and get them to an appropriate longer-term facility.  It has a detox program, a homeless shelter across the street, a physician on staff, and so forth.  Sometimes the police bring someone.  Sometimes whole families walk in off the streets.  The Center serves about 18,000 people a year.

The savings to the County so far are about $10 million a year.  As the agencies hone their systems, and as the population hopefully gets healthier, they will save even more.

Thanks to Evans, I now dream of a Restoration Center, but one servicing children and families at the other end of the spectrum where mental illness, homelessness and substance abuse might be prevented.  Evans’ Restoration Center is across from a homeless shelter, but mine would be across from a fabulous park or adventure playground.  There, mental health workers could interact with families to support actual mental health, resilience, social skill-building, and conflict management.  Children would get help at early signs of distress or dysfunction.  Imagine the savings if we did that.

Working together, humans can accomplish the miraculous.  Evans did.  We need more people like him to bulldog us into it.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Drugs, Drop-outs and Restorative Justice Conferencing

Published by EducationNews.org — When a student knows what she wants, it’s a lot easier to help her get through trouble.

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The lovely Roxanna, as we’ll call her, sighed heavily as she joined a circle that included a school administrator, two conference facilitators and her very pissed-off dad.  The teacher who had promised to make it could not.  Roxanna agreed to participate in a restorative-justice conference for drug possession, hoping to resolve the matter by making reparations rather than risk more traditional consequences in which she’ll have little or no say.

Simultaneously sheepish and defiant – common behavior in these conferences – she assured the group that she wasn’t high.  She’d just forgotten that she had a little stash.  Her purse spilled, and an adult saw it.  But she wasn’t stoned or acting weird.  So it wasn’t a big a deal.  She’s hardly the only one who smokes weed occasionally.  Besides, she says, she’s changed.  She has ambitions, so she needs her diploma.

Everyone else at the table thinks it’s a big deal.  Her father certainly didn’t struggle to bring his family from their homeland for the kind of nonsense his kid is dishing out.  To him, this is very personal, very upsetting.

This conferencing program helps divert students from getting caught up in “the system” – meaning Truancy Court, Family Court and the judicial system.  Actually, as the objections to marijuana have relaxed over the years, Rhode Island and other states have made possession of small amounts a matter of relatively minor fines.  Drugs are still illegal for anyone under 18, but Roxanna is over 18.  The police could only issue a ticket for a fine that no one wants to make this dad pay.

The conference is Roxanna’s second chance at a second chance.

While the cops aren’t much of a problem, Roxanna risks losing the opportunity to get her high school diploma. She’s in a special program for students who are “over-aged and under-credited” — meaning that they blew off a significant portion of high school.  She had already dropped out once and now she’s back.  But given her age and drug-involvement, the program has no obligation to keep her.  Everyone at the table hopes she’ll take advantage of this unusual conferencing opportunity to salvage her situation.

The lead facilitator goes over the simple rules – take turns, speak for yourself, no accusatory statements, things like that.  The victims speak first, so the administrator, representing the community, talks with frustration about what a plague drugs in school have become.  Doing drugs out of school is bad enough, but in school drugs wreck learning both for the addled and the students around them.

Roxanna shrugs; she’s not convinced. She reiterates that she wasn’t high.  The adults cringe.

Then the dad tearfully explains how hurt he feels.  He and her siblings love her, but they are ashamed.  Roxanna rolls her eyes.  He’s had to take part of the day off work, which he’ll have to make up.  Mom’s apparently not in the picture.  He seems exhausted.

Roxanna says she’s sorry already, wishing everyone would just chill.  The facilitators shift to the reparations phase, when the group tries to hammer out an agreement.  Assuming she’s remorseful, which seems doubtful at this point, and that she completes the agreement, the slate will be wiped clean with no further repercussions.  Per protocol, the facilitators begin by asking her what she hopes for after high school, what she wants to do for a career.

“I want to be a stewardess.” 

Oka-ay.  Kids who just shrug when asked what they want are far harder to help.  A kid’s dream is like building materials for facilitators; you can work with them.  One facilitator opens a laptop and searches “requirements for becoming a stewardess.”  Humph.  He scans it, reading out loud – you need a high-school diploma or GED…  no visible tattoos.  Ooooo, mandatory drug testing is a condition of hiring for most airlines.  Random drug testing thereafter.  Stewardesses need to be drug-free.

That totally got her attention.  The conference went silent as she digested the information.  Her defensiveness softened.  Her voice was apologetic.  “I really do want to be a stewardess.”  All right, then, what would make this right?  Suddenly becoming a problem-solver, she suggested reparations – three sessions of drug counseling, an essay on the effects of drugs that she would proofread carefully, and the promise to be scrupulously on time to her classes every day.  Writing this agreement was quick; everyone signed.  Dad looked like he could finally sleep at night.  Very gratifying.

Roxanna did finish what she promised to do, and she did it well before the agreement’s deadline.  And she received her diploma in a cap and gown during a mid-year ceremony.  Getting kicked out of the program would have been painful, but not nearly as memorably upsetting as sitting with family and supporters to give an account of her foolish behavior and take responsibility for it.  Without the conference, Roxanna’s misbehavior could have ended her dream.  But I’ll bet she’s a stewardess now.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Instead of School Suspensions, Let’s Listen to Kids

Published by EducationNews.org — Kicking out the disruptive kids is convenient.  But what do we, or they, learn from it?

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Allow me to say right off the top that I believe each out-of-school suspension is a symptom of a mental or social issue.  I’d call them symptoms of disease, but some are more like sniffles.

In 2014, President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper sparked awareness not only of the frequency of suspensions, but also of the glaring racial disparities among those suspended.  Some states are using legislation to curtail these kick-out practices that appear to be the starting point of the school-to-prison pipeline.

The Restorative Practices/Justice lens asks us to take a step back from the offending incident itself to consider the bigger picture.  What does the offense tell us about the community as a whole — school, neighborhood, family?  What contributed to it?  A kid who has damaged property, behaved abusively towards a teacher or gotten into a fight must take responsibility for her action.  But what does the behavior mean?

School staff ask about what happened, but rarely do they go deeply into the matter.  Suspension is a quick, time-honored response.  But its convenience cuts off any chance of understanding the kid, the symptom, or the conditions that nurtured the yucky behavior.  I once heard a restorative guidance counselor ask a kid if his disruptive behavior was trying to say something.  Without hesitation, he said:  “We have no food.  My dad’s gone.  I’m not sure where.”  What’s a suspension going to accomplish?

Kicking kids out does not teach them how to behave in a community-appropriate manner.  Nor does more time in front of the TV or video game get to the root of a mental or familial problem.  Sometimes better classroom management, or more engaging instruction, would ward off unwanted behavior.  And sometimes, to protect the other kids’ learning, teachers feel they have no choice but to kick a kid out of their class.  But usually, suspensions banish the problem only temporarily.

Four reasons why kids misbehave:

The first two are opposite sides of the same coin:

1.  Learned behavior — For example, many urban students live in families and communities where they are sworn at constantly.  School staff, not uncommonly suburban themselves, can easily be offended by kids’ hideous language and aggressive demeanor.  It’s ugly, don’t get me wrong.  But it’s learned behavior.  By all means, teach them why it’s necessary to unlearn it.  Help them understand that it should not spill into schools or the workplace.  A restorative question might be:  “Does this language (or other behavior) happen at home?”  If so, it’s private and needs to stay at home.

2.  Unlearned Behavior, which is to say social skills not yet mastered –  The occasional kid who comes to school eating with her hands has never been taught to use a fork.  More often, when kids haven’t been taught to take turns, they talk so intrusively as to be maddening.  Others throw punches at the most minor offense because they’ve been taught to fight for survival.

3.  Trauma — We have all experienced some degree of trauma in our lives — a car accident, death in the family, job loss.  Healthy people manage to respond in more and less healthy ways.  But kids, especially those most suffering from chaotic urban poverty, often act out as a way of expressing their distress.  I knew a 6th grader who occasionally howled uncontrollably during the class.  If you knew her backstory, you’d howl too.  And yelling at traumatized kids often sets them off.  Kicking them out effectively blames the kid for being triggered.

4.  Brat behavior — Yes, some kids get away with whatever they can.  I was one of them.  To avoid a boring Spanish class, I snuck away with friends to smoke cigarettes.  When we got caught, we lost privileges that I wanted back.  I knew I ran a risk of consequences, but getting kicked out would have been an invitation to rebel yet more.

No one likes rotten, undisciplined manners and social skills. 

But yelling, punishing, humiliating, lecturing, and all forms of trying to hurt the kid into compliance, do not improve social skills.  They don’t calm the traumatized child.  They don’t help the brat see her arrogant ways.  They are the opposite of listening and modeling behavior we want to see.

Being heard is a powerful, palpable feeling.  Suspensions shut the kid up.  But what is the behavior trying to tell us?  Unless we listen, we don’t know.  Traditional public schools have not been expected to take time to hear kids’ voices, issues, and frustrations.  As a result, problems and rebellion inevitably fester.  We don’t have to believe everything they say, but good heavens:  ask.  Listen. In a healthy community, all voices must be heard — kids, staff, families community members.

Because when community members — of a classroom, a school, a neighborhood — are satisfied that they’re being heard, they’ll establish trust.  Yes, creating ways to hear each person is a heavy lift.  But it is precisely what will end suspensions as we know them.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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What If South Carolina’s Body-Slammed Teen Had Been Treated Restoratively?

Published by EducationNews.org — There may be no good excuse for disrupting class, but a punitive response can just exacerbate the problem.

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Restorative practices are simple tools for handling conflict in ways that maximize the possibility of a happy ending.  The practices are habits of the mind and heart.  So let’s revisit last October’s nasty incident at Spring Valley High with an eye on how things might have gone differently if the school had been Restorative.

Likely you remember the cellphone videos that went viral, showing a math class where a teenage girl’s non-compliance triggered a violent assault by a School Resource Officer (SRO).  The attack on her would have been appalling under any circumstances, but to boot, the uniformed police officer was white and the girl was black.

The girl’s classmates reported that she had pulled out her cellphone, a bane of many schools’ existence these days.  Adolescents are by nature easily distracted, but this generation has been raised in part by electronic baby sitters, so their phones are not just interesting, but comforting.  Was the girl unprepared or feeling stupid in this algebra class?  We don’t know.  We know she was distracted and distracting.

The 16-year veteran teacher asked her to put it away.  She refused.  He asked her to go to the “discipline office.”  She refused again, so he got the SRO.  The videos show her clinging to the chair in defiance of the officer.  But he totally lost his stuff.  After slamming her to the ground, he threw her out the door.  He was fired soon after.  The reports mostly focus on him.

Restorative schools are trauma-informed.

Among the few facts revealed about the girl was that she was in foster care.  A state’s Child Protective Services remove kids from their homes when the parents are abusive, seriously neglectful, substance abusers, radically incompetent, or dead.  So foster-care kids have been traumatized, if only by being removed.  They have precious little control over their lives.  The girl asserted what power she had.  Neither the cop nor the teacher necessarily knew the girl’s circumstances, nor do most school staff need to know kids’ personal business.  But “trauma-informed” means that adults are fully aware that such circumstances are always possible – with any kid.

In other words, when confronting nasty behavior, the safe assumption is that it could be signaling the presence of trauma.  If so, the trauma can be ignited by yelling, humiliating, or generally getting into a head-butt with someone unwilling to comply with orders.  When trauma overwhelms a person, their brain shuts off its language center and executive function, leaving the body and primitive parts of the brain to defend itself with primitive methods.  They can not use their words appropriately.  So getting into a power struggle with a traumatized kid risks triggering out-of-control behavior.  Better to tread lightly and assume that the kid may not be capable of responding appropriately.

Ask three caring, de-escalating questions first.

Mind you, nothing excuses a student for disrupting a class.  The rest of the class deserves to learn.  But punitive techniques like kicking the kid out often exacerbate the problem.

Restorative 101 would recommend speaking to a misbehaving kid, like the girl with the phone, in a calm, lowered voice — always a good de-escalating tactic.  And instead of making commands or statements, ask a couple of questions in a caring, sincere, non-sarcastic tone.  Questions such as:

“Are you expecting an important call?”  This calls the kid out for her behavior.  Some people object that such call-outs are themselves embarrassing.  But the kid clearly needs help seeing that what she’s doing has a negative effect on the classroom community.  She’s made her behavior their business.  No reason to be mean, but does she understand what the big picture looks like?  A tiny prick of shame is okay, especially if it helps her put her phone in her pocket.

“Is there something going on with you today that’s distracting you?  If so, I’ve got a minute after class to talk.”  Most kids are going to say no whatever the circumstances.  But if the teacher is available after class, perhaps with one more kind question, at least the kid might feel cared about.  Maybe she’ll say something pertinent.

Or:  “Can the phone wait?  This is algebra and we all need to concentrate.”

The SRO might have been entirely unnecessary.

Granted, teachers don’t feel they have time to ask such questions.  Some feel a disruptive kid doesn’t deserve helpful attention.  But a moment of caring might have made a huge difference to our foster-care teen.  And an argument that leads to a kick-out disrupts the class hugely.  A few quick questions can make it clear whether the kid can settle into class or truly needs to be elsewhere.

The point is that a gentle, trauma-informed approach can de-escalate and prevent conflicts.  Restorative practices can’t guarantee redeemed behavior.  But they do create the conditions that ease trouble instead of throwing gas on what might well be a smoldering ember.  The girl was apparently quiet, if breaking the rules.  She deserved to be treated restoratively.  As do they all.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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New Year’s Resolution: Take the Time to Restore Kids’ Lives

Published by EducationNews.org — Do we leave problems to fester, or do we put in the effort, unpack the problem and come up with answers?

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A few years ago a kid we’ll call Leon transferred from a big urban district to the small, even poorer district where I consult on restorative practices.  As a 7th grader, Leon was small for his age and scrappy.  When not disrupting class or wandering the halls, his head was firmly on the desk.  He did zero work.  By December he was no longer a mere “frequent flier,” but the number one champ of discipline referrals.

Such kids drive dedicated urban teachers to cruise job postings in suburban towns and to demand “alternative placements” for unwanted kids.  But no one learns community-appropriate behavior when segregated in a behavior-disorder classroom, a residential facility, or a prison.  But what to do?  The choice seems to be either wrecking that kid’s life by kicking him out or wrecking the learning environment of the other kids — never mind driving the teachers nuts.

But this middle school’s bold principal stepped into the fray.  A committed, experienced Restorative Practioner (RP) herself, she had established a restorative-practices implementation team to work on climate-and-culture issues.  While Response to Intervention (RTI) and special education teams address the needs of individual kids one at a time, an RP team supports the health of the school community as a whole.

Ideally, the team creates restorative solutions to prevent anticipated problems like tardiness or class-cutting.  But sometimes the “frequent fliers” consume so much community attention that they need concentrated help as a group.  So, the principal asked the RP team to assemble all possible information on each high-maintenance child.

The team member assigned to Leon knew his mother was hard to reach.

Mom works, and was royally sick of getting calls from the school.  Still, the team needed to know what he was like at home.  Might there be a relative, a neighbor, or family friend who could help Mom?  Does the family have any social services already in place?  If so, what?  Did Leon’s teachers have any theories as to what might be up with him?  And lo: one teacher suggested he might need glasses.  Ultimately, that piece of intel was the key that unlocked the mystery.

But getting anything done beyond the school walls is way easier said than done.  Some enterprising school nurses might have personal relationships with outside providers, but schools don’t have optometrists on call.  They refer such matters to the parents, hoping they have insurance, willingness and capacity to pursue the issue.  If not, though, good luck navigating the hurdles presented by public-service bureaucracies and insurance companies.  It’s not really the school’s job.  But in collaboration with a local private social-services organization, the RP team helped Mom sign up for a program that could arrange an eye test.

Sure enough, Leon couldn’t possibly see the board in class, never mind tease out the tiny letters in a book.  But optometrists don’t just give out glasses, so the team had yet another hurdle to clear — which they somehow did.

And Leon’s discipline referrals full-on stopped.

This story is only unusual because of its extremes.  Leon’s infuriating disruptiveness ended abruptly when he could finally use his eyesight.  More typical are serious behavior problems with roots in trauma, neglect, and family dysfunction.  The Herculean efforts of the RP team managed a stupidly-quick fix for Leon, but trauma cases are harder and far more tangled.  But solutions will never be found, leaving the problems to fester, unless someone puts in the effort to unpack the problem and come up with answers.

All schools need an RP team seamlessly connected to outside agencies focused on mental health, housing, physical health, juvenile justice or whatever is needed.  I suspect that in my state, Rhode Island, the bureaucracies are especially insulated from one another.  But I don’t think it’s common that teachers work closely with non-school social workers.  Kids’ lives are not divided by sectors.  Some need diverse teams.

Leon’s issue was resolved with a bit of medical help and then a way to pay for glasses.  That it was so hard to accomplish wasn’t the school’s fault.  It’s just not their job.  But enough troubled behavior can bring teaching and learning to a halt.  RP teams might have to help the whole family become healthier before the child’s behavior improves.  But schools tend to live in little worlds of their own.  Confidentiality, funding, policies and fiefdoms prevent disparate agencies from working together to restore a kid’s life.

There are no bad kids, only bad behavior.

Before the RP team went on its forensic search, Leon was essentially being punished for poor eyesight.  Similarly, traumatized kids are punished for not having a better response to their trauma.  Troubled behavior will not respond to carrot-and-stick discipline tactics.  Somehow, someone needs to stop the assembly line to give significant time and attention to some kids’ problems and more time working on solving them.

That requires time, labor, and resources.  Redeploying existing outside services to help schools would be best.  But organizing that would be a big lift — even though it would save tons of time, money and misery in the long run.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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