Chapel Hill News

Restorative practices cutting suspensions at Chapel Hill school

When it comes to school discipline, it’s important to separate the deed from the doer.

That message was shared by McDougle Middle School drama teacher Stephen Rayfield at a community forum Tuesday at the Chapel Hill Library.

Rayfield joined Principal Robert Bales and fellow McDougle teacher Wendy York in a presentation about the “restorative practices” approach to school discipline that’s dramatically cut down on suspensions, as well as the need for school resource officers to get involved, and discipline referrals in general.

“This stuff works,” Bales said.

As proof, York provided numbers that showed in-school suspensions since she took a job at McDougle five years ago and started using restorative practices.

“We did go from 452 major referrals to less than a hundred,” she said.

So far this school year, she added, there have been 25.

That success makes McDougle the pilot for the rest of the school system, as more teachers learn the practices over the next few years. The implementation of those practices is listed as “Goal 3” in the CHCCS website for its Equity Plan, which is a work in progress.

Using restorative practices involves building relationships with students, in ways that include “checking in” with them at the beginning and end of the school week, to make sure they’re doing well academically – and personally.

Teachers direct students to form circles to discuss course content; or, when needed, to work out a problem that’s affecting them, such as bullying.

Or, it could be about social issues that are troubling. McDougle held “lunchtime circles” after the protests in Charlotte over the police shooting of Keith Scott. Pretty soon, said Bales, students were coming to him and their teachers with requests to hold a circle, in order to discuss a number of issues.

When they can, teachers can provide meaningful consequences for bad behavior, such as when York taught sheetrock repair on-the-spot to a student who punched a hole in a wall during a tantrum.

“The officer in the room asked me if I wanted him removed,” she recalled. “I said no. He’s not going anywhere. I can’t teach him if he’s at home.”

Avoiding stigma

Shame has a place in discipline, but it should not become a stigma that turns kids into outsiders, Rayfield said. That is one driver of the school-to-prison pipeline, he said.

“Stigmatizing shame pushes the offender out of the community and labels them,” he said. “The offender is now a ‘bad’ person who did a bad thing, or harmed someone. And this label follows them – it could follow them, potentially, for their entire school career.”

Last spring, Rayfield and York, a behavior and academic support specialist, took a trip to The International Institute for Restorative Practices in Bethlehem, Pa. for two days of training to bring back to their fellow teachers. They went again in October, with a group of 12.

York and Rayfield train others at the school in the techniques they learned.

Twenty teachers showed up for summer training, on days when they knew they wouldn’t be paid.

“They got lunch,” said Bales. And with that, he added, they were ready to “hit the ground running” by the opening of school. As it turned out, they’d gotten prepared at a particularly hard time for many kids.

“There’s a lot that happened this summer,” said Bales, gesturing to a projected slide that showed House Bill 2, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and incidents of deadly police interactions with black people.

At the first faculty meeting of the school year, all those issues and more were discussed, so that teachers would have additional guidance on how to talk to kids about them. By November, it was clear that they had planned well.

“The day after the election … it was a little different that day,” he said. “We were prepared for that, though.”

By June, CHCCS hopes to have 12 employees ready as “in-house-trainers” for teachers and administrators throughout the school system.