City schools implement restorative approaches to move beyond detention and discipline

With student behavior remaining a key factor in teacher morale, Harrisonburg city schools’ Restorative Practice Coordinator Isaiah Dottin-Carter said Tuesday he’s trying to use restorative approaches to address conflicts while ensuring that all voices are heard.

“When you are in our school buildings, you are part of our community,” Dottin-Carter told the Harrisonburg City School Board at its Tuesday business meeting. “But sometimes, our staff members don’t feel that way, and so we need to let them know, ‘because you’re a part of our community, we need to hear your voice.’”

He said restorative justice should be embedded in academics, social emotional learning, diversity equity and inclusivity, as well as district and school policy.

Dottin-Carter said this looks like building and sustaining well-being by creating a physical and psychological safe space for students and staff alike. He said achieving it requires collaboration from students, teachers, community members, administrators and other school districts. 

Daniel Kirwan,Skyline Middle School’s principal, said he and staff members have adopted restorative practices and mediations, including student-student, student-adult and adult-adult. 

“You might think this is about discipline, but it’s not,” Kirwan said. “We’re trying to shift the emphasis away from ‘breaking rules’ to how the impact of our actions affects our relationships and our trust. Sometimes, it’s deeper than just, ‘go to detention.’ If you have to listen, empathize and hear that other point of view, we’re finding that has a deeper impact.”

Kirwan said Skyline is also moving away from “exclusionary disciplines” such as suspension. He said that while safety is important, it’s also important to include students who misbehave and ensure they feel a sense of belonging as well to prevent future offenses.

This approach, he said, fits with the school’s tagline: “Peace, Love & Learning.”

“[This tagline] really came out of the COVID pandemic when we were really focusing a lot on human need and thinking about peace and love,” Kirwan told the board. “When it comes to peace, obviously, we’re going for calm and engaging classroom learning. We know that conflict is inevitable, but it’s how we deal with it that is a real measure of human beings, so we often say ‘we’re not going to react with violence, words or actions.’”

To Skyline Middle School, love, means “recognizing the dignity in everyone no matter what” and ensuring that all feel a sense of belonging, Kirwan said. Learning, he continued, is simply “the heart and soul of what we do.”

Kirwan said Skyline began implementing restorative practices by having “circle discussions” in which students, staff, parents, administration or a combination of all engage in a conversation while utilizing a facilitator. 

“A circle really encourages and sort of makes voices be heard by all,” Kirwan told the board. “We want that circle to represent that all voices matter in what we do.”

Dottin-Carter said staff circle discussions often involve conversations about mental health and other aspects of the job. 

“We don’t get to talk about these things when we’re jumping from meeting to meeting, and it’s like, ‘I don’t even know the person sitting beside me,’” Dottin-Carter said. “Let’s actually stop and pause to get to know each other.”

The city school district has introduced student support specialists, who provide on-site coaching, instruction, and restorative practices to promote positive social skills, self-management and personal growth. These specialists provide support to faculty and staff by offering professional development in restorative practices in the classroom and strategies of conflict transformation.

The number of student support specialists has grown, Dottin-Carter said, from three in 2021 to nine this year, district-wide. 

Jeff Newcomer Miller, Thomas Harrison Middle School’s student support specialist, brought with him two students who have played a major role in implementing restorative practices throughout their school, he said. 

One 8th grade student, Danica, told the board about how she and 24 other students meet to have social and emotional lessons that serve as training for becoming facilitators of circle discussions. She said her goal is to have students open up and start to understand the reasons behind restorative justice and restorative practices.

Miller said he has also implemented restorative conversations for students who have had a number of disruptions in the classroom. He said that instead of a “finger-wagging” conversation, he or a teacher will discuss a student’s progress or accomplishments, along with weaknesses. Then they will discuss the problem at hand and come up with a solution. 

“What I love about restorative practices is that listening is one thing we don’t teach in education,” Dottin-Carter said. “And so, with some of our restorative practices, we are offering students and staff opportunities to learn how to listen more effectively.”

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