Talking back to the teacher in class? Detention. Arriving late to class every day? Suspension.
Discipline in schools has followed that pattern for generations, but a new philosophy of restorative justice is taking hold at schools throughout Durango.
“When I was an assistant principal at Durango High School, I found it to be far more effective than more punitive measures,” said Cito Nuhn, principal of Miller Middle School, which is phasing in a restorative-justice model that will begin in the fall. “There are five key parts to restorative practice – respect, responsibility, relationships, repair and reintegration.”
The efforts differ within Durango School District 9-R. Elementary schools are working on mindfulness and helping students understand how they are feeling and how their actions impact others. Both middle schools and Durango High School have included elements of the practice in disciplinary actions, and Miller will serve as a pilot and lab for other schools to see how it works in full implementation.
In an example, Nuhn told about a group of students that was misbehaving in a class.
“The teacher allowed herself to be vulnerable and shared in a sad way how their behavior affected her,” Nuhn said. “Those students got to see how someone who is human felt. We had a great conversation, and they really understood what they had done.”
The practice takes significantly more time for administrators and teachers, Nuhn said.
“It used to be one and done, here’s your discipline: three lunch detentions,” Nuhn said. “This takes time, 40 minutes at least.”
Big Picture High School in February instituted a Fairness Committee of one teacher, one underclassman and one senior. The group has addressed nine complaints this year, adviser Dreher Robertson said.
“I analyzed lunch detentions for a month and found that about 85 percent were there for repeated infractions of the same behavior, so it was clear lunch detentions weren’t working,” Robertson said.
The most surprising result was the change throughout the school after the committee was founded.
“We saw an immediate change in behavior in classrooms,” he said. “The biggest piece of that, the biggest influence, was having to sit and admit wrongdoing, own up to the behavior and repair the relationship in front of other students, which is a lot more work.”
Appearing before the Fairness Committee is voluntary, but it is not an option for serious offenses, such as bringing drugs to school.
“Alain (Big Picture Principal Alain Henry) is very clear about the consequences,” Robertson said. “Choosing not to go to the committee immediately results in punitive action, because you’re unwilling to solve the problem.”
One of the first students who went before the committee was a 17-year-old.
“He was coming late to school and leaving early and not communicating with his teacher,” Robertson said. “He came in to the committee and started talking about truancy law, and we had to tell him that wasn’t why he was there. ‘We’re here to talk about your teacher feeling disrespected, about your classmates seeing you disrespect your teacher,’ we told him. It changed the whole conversation.”
The committee worked with the student to form an agreement.
“Every day, he makes a plan for what he’s going to do,” Robertson said. “When he finishes, he checks with his adviser and calls his mother, and if they agree, he can leave early.”
At Animas High School, a restorative-justice philosophy is morphing into more full-scale use with a committee of nine students.
“There’s no research that says the punitive approach works,” Head of School Sean Woytek said. “We’re all about community, and restorative justice helps students learn from a mistake and brings them back into the community. It also helps other students learn from the mistake.”
All in the brainThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has conducted several studies on adverse childhood experiences that can affect how children and youths respond to discipline. An adverse experience can include sexual, emotional or physical abuse, exposing children to violent situations such as domestic violence, neglect or family pressures such as homelessness or food insecurity.
The physiology of adolescent brains explains why restorative justice is effective, and understanding that physiology may help students rethink their behavior.
“Our students lit up when we started talking about the adolescent brain,” said Christopher Calagias, another adviser at Big Picture. “We tie in all the neuroscience we can in health classes.”
Nick Turco, who will graduate from Animas High on Friday, studied the neurobiology of adolescents subject to the school-to-prison pipeline for his senior project. At-risk youth, who tend to skew heavily to low-income and minority students, are particularly impacted by punitive school discipline, he said.
“There is a flood of neuroscience research to navigate,” Turco told the District 9-R school board in April. “But their brains haven’t built the pathways they need to be able to cope with punitive discipline.”
School needs to be their safe place, he said, because what’s happening at home is so difficult.