Frankye Stanley sometimes has to find creative ways to reach students.

She once built a fake car, using printed tires and rims and headlights made from bowls covered in foil, to get the attention of a student who had initiated a shoving match in a classroom.  

“I knew that he loves cars and he loves driving,” she said. “… You have to really get to know your students.”

Staff and teachers at Fairfax Learning Center — a Kansas City, Kansas, public high school — worked with the student to act out a car wreck caused by texting as an analogy to help him understand how his behavior affects others. Under normal circumstances, the student would have been suspended through the end of the school year. 

But Fairfax had begun a schoolwide effort to handle discipline differently.

Using an approach called “restorative practices,” the school focuses on helping students repair harm rather than doling out punishments. It also seeks to prevent problems, or address them in their early stages, by building strong relationships among students and staff and listening to students’ perspectives.

Stanley is the restorative justice specialist at Fairfax. 

Instead of being suspended for the rest of the school year, the student she worked with was able to articulate the harm he caused and help develop a plan to avoid future incidents, such as respectfully asking to leave a room when he starts to get upset. 

Both Fairfax and F.L. Schlagle High School, also in the Kansas City, Kansas, public school district, use restorative practices to reduce punishments like suspensions and office visits that take students out of classrooms but haven’t solved behavior problems. 

Based on research into what has been successful in other schools and initial promising results within the district, administrators are hopeful the technique can create safer schools, improve attendance and academics, and reduce suspensions. 

An evidence-based strategy

It isn’t intuitive to reduce the use of punishment, said Terry Bigby, an intervention coordinator at F.L. Schlagle who played a major role in implementing restorative practices. 

But when Bigby looked into the research on schoolwide programs to improve student behavior, she found that restorative justice has one advantage over nearly all other potential methods: There’s evidence to support that it actually works

Getting school discipline right can have high stakes. Students miss instruction time when they are suspended from school or sent out of the classroom to visit the office.

Suspension is also a risk factor for involvement in the criminal justice system, Bigby said, and Black male students are disproportionately suspended. 

“We don’t want to increase the number of our kids working with juvenile justice,” she said. “They’re not set up for prevention; the whole system is set up for reaction.”

F.L. Schlagle started exploring restorative practices during the 2016-17 school years, with the main launch in 2018-19. That year, office visits and suspensions dropped significantly from the previous school year, Bigby said in an April 13 presentation to the Kansas State Board of Education. The percentage of students absent more than seven days in a semester also dropped. 

Most dramatically, “major safety offenses” went down 80%  — actions that “seriously jeopardize school order and security,” Bigby wrote, including fighting, physical assault, and threatening staff or students.

In 2017-18, nearly half of the 95 major safety offenses were physical fights, Bigby said. By 2018-19, there were only two “major physical altercations.” 

In the 2019-20 school year, the school reduced suspensions by an additional 10%, Bigby said in an email to The Beacon, and state test scores for spring 2020 rose by double digits in both math and language arts. 

Because the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted in-person learning, Schlagle does not have comparable data from the 2020-21 school year. 

Skyler Myers, who is in his first year as principal at Fairfax, also said the pandemic has made ongoing data collection difficult. He said Fairfax has regularly used restorative practices for at least two years but began moving in that direction earlier.

How restorative practices reduce school suspensions

Central to the concept of restorative justice is the emphasis on repairing harmed relationships rather than punishing rule violators. 

“Instead of whose fault is it … we might ask the question like, ‘Whose responsibility is it?’” said Sheryl Wilson. Wilson is the executive director of the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, an organization affiliated with Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, that helped train Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools staff through its Restorative Schools Initiative

That question could lead the entire community to take responsibility for repairing the harm or teaching the person who caused it, Wilson said.

Stanley, the Fairfax restorative justice specialist, has worked with district students who would normally have received 90- or 180-day suspensions. Instead, they participated in a 45day restorative program at Fairfax that focused on self-awareness, self-management and relationship-building. 

She said she saw “startling” changes in students, including in their language and level of respect. Most were able to successfully return to their schools. 

“I believe that when we sit down with these students and give them the opportunity to know that we’re not against them, but we’re with them, and that we’re not pointing fingers or blaming them, we’re there to work through any struggles with them, they have a whole new mindset,” Stanley said. 

Instead of whose fault is it … we might ask the question like, ‘Whose responsibility is it?’

Sheryl Wilson, Kansas institute for peace and conflict resolution

A major restorative practice known as a “circle” brings participants together on an equal footing to speak their minds. Members often pass around an object that allows the person holding it to speak uninterrupted, or to pass it to the next person. 

The idea is to emphasize the importance of every voice and to suspend hierarchies, Wilson said. 

Skyler Myers, the principal of Fairfax, said using circles and restorative practices doesn’t mean students will never be punished or held accountable but does mean they will be heard. Sometimes authority figures apologize and recognize ways they can adjust to avoid escalating situations in the future. 

While circles can be used to address harm or conflict — or to integrate a student back into a school after a suspension — they can also be used as a preventive measure and to build a healthier culture.

Fairfax uses a numbered tier system to describe circles, with higher numbers addressing more serious harm. Tier one circles can be used to check in with students at the beginning of a class period or as a tool for discussing course material. 

“The more that you have those tier one circles, where you’re building community, you’re establishing that culture of collaboration and communication among students and staff, the less likely it is that you’re going to have those harm circles where there’s a fight,” Myers said. 

“Because when you have that culture where people are willing to come talk to you about it, they’ll come have a circle before it gets to that point.”

Creating a culture shift away from punishment in schools

Teachers who get training in restorative practices but aren’t supported schoolwide can have a hard time implementing what they’ve learned in a daily classroom environment.

“If everybody in a school can be trained at the same time, it really contributes toward saturation and what we consider to be the culture shift that happens at a school,” Wilson said. 

A school district that largely keeps a traditional mindset but adds occasional restorative practices might have less success, Myers said. 

Myers said he understands it can be hard to let go of that mindset because he was initially skeptical of restorative practices. 

With a traditional education approach, “it’s kind of like, the teacher’s the authority, the student is the student, they’re there to listen and comply. The teacher is always right,” he said. “And part of it is letting go of that dynamic a little bit, which can be really scary.”

At F.L. Schagle, Bigby emphasized, leadership worked intensively to involve teachers and students and develop systems to ensure ideas were actually carried out throughout the school. 

District leadership has devoted resources to helping schools become “trauma-informed” but allowed schools to determine their focus areas from a “menu” of options, said Lisa Garcia-Stewart, director of student services for the Kansas City, Kansas, district. 

Bigby said she is looking forward to seeing a systematic plan from the district to expand restorative practices in other schools, and she is also hoping to extend restorative practices into the greater community.

One area where she would like to see more improvement is attendance.

“There are factors beyond school factors which are impacting it,” she said. “So we believe the more involved we get in the community, the more positively that will be impacted.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.