In recent years, there have been changes to state law to limit the use of suspensions in school. You can look up a lot of data on discipline numbers on the state superintendent’s web site, but what’s missing are the human stories behind the statistics.
Why did that one kid come to school stoned? Why does that girl have a backpack stuffed with stolen goods?
For schools that are shifting away from a system of automatic punishments, getting to the underlying reasons behind misbehavior is key. Instead of traditional suspensions, some schools are using restorative circles, in which students who break rules sit down to talk with the people they’ve wronged.
The result can be powerful.
Jim Goode has been teaching for three decades, but he had never heard of a restorative circle until last year.
He teaches PE at Gates High School in Parkland. His gym is a bit of a sanctuary at this small school of 130 students.
One reason is because he lets kids listen to music while they exercise. On a recent morning, students practiced their basketball shots while the song "Human" by Rag'n'Bone Man played in the background.
But last year, Goode’s set of $180 speakers he had brought from home disappeared.
“I was absent one day and when I came back, my speaker system had been stolen,” he said.
At other schools where he taught, a theft like that would set the great discipline machine in motion: suspension, maybe charges.
But instead, Gates’s principal, Val Jones, suggested a restorative circle. Jones and Goode sat down with the girl who had stolen the speakers and her friends who had pressured her to do it.
Goode was skeptical. But when Jones asked him to explain how he felt, he opened up.
“Some of the equipment is my personal equipment, and I have an 11-year-old kid, so I started talking about some of the stuff that I brought here and the equipment might be destroyed or torn down, so after a while my son would ask, 'Dad, why do you keep giving your things or my things to these kids who don’t appreciate it?’” Goode said.
Then he explained how he usually responds to his children when they ask him that.
“I tell my kids that the kids at Gates might not have everything we have, so we have to keep giving,” he said. “But when I started telling the story, oh my gosh, the tears just started flowing from the girls. They just started to understand the damage something like that can cause.”
Goode got his speakers back that same day. And he said the whole tenor of his relationship with the girls shifted. They would ask about his family and take leadership roles in class.
“Once they started realizing that we weren’t going to hold it against them, and yes, then totally different kids. Totally different kids,” he said.
A Shift Away From Suspensions
Gates Principal Val Jones said it’s an example of the importance of building and maintaining relationships between teachers and students.
“Students will do almost anything for you if they think you care about them,” she said. “They want to please you so badly as a teacher.”
When Jones took the job nine years ago, the school had about 200 suspensions in a school year – more than one per kid.
She has focused on reducing that number. Last year, the school had six suspensions. There have been eight so far this year.
Jones said the restorative method doesn’t always work. But for many students, talking things out instead of receiving punishment is more effective.
“When they realize that they’ve done something that may have hurt someone or impacted the community that they’re learning in, then they want to make it better,” she said.
For a restorative circle to work, she said there has to be something to restore: You have to build an environment where people have empathy for each other.
Chimere Hackney is an English teacher and a big believer in this concept.
Homeroom at Gates is called Check and Connect. It’s one way the school tries to keep students on track. Gates is an alternative high school where students can catch up on credits when they’ve fallen behind elsewhere.
One morning last fall, a handful of kids ambled into Hackney's homeroom class. She asked them to sit in a circle. Hackney wanted to talk about why they haven’t been meeting their attendance goal.
“No one’s trying to convict anybody, we’re just trying to figure some stuff out because we set that goal and day 1 was not awesome,” she told the students. “And so we need to figure that out.”
A student named Saleyna Middleton urged her classmate to do a better job of coming to school. She even offered to pick him up.
“Call me and tell me, 'I need you to come get me.’ I will,” she said. “But you have dreams and I see that. You have so much aspiration and drive.”
Hackney said this kind of circle helps students form bonds and hold each other accountable. Hackney has close-cropped curly hair and a big smile, but her brow is often furrowed because she’s trying to figure out what’s going on with her students - why one girl isn’t making eye contact, why another seems upset.
A big part of her teaching style is to listen deeply. Students here face a range of struggles. There are students who have kids of their own. Others have had family members murdered. Some are living in foster homes. Some have just been released from juvenile detention.
Hackney turned her attention to Middleton to remind her about a previous conversation. Middleton was pregnant during this homeroom circle (she's since given birth) and had said she wanted to follow her mother's example of pursuing higher education while raising kids.
“You said that you feel so blessed and lucky that you had a mom who has two master’s degrees," Hackney said. "And just because you’re pregnant and you’re going to have a baby soon, you need to be that for your baby."
There are so many students at Gates who qualify for free or reduced meals that the school provides breakfast and lunch to everyone.
Many also have a history of suspensions in other schools. Kaylene Herron, a 17-year-old senior, said she’s never been suspended, but many of her friends at other schools have. She doesn’t think that kind of discipline works.
“Most kids, they don’t want to be at school, so when they get suspended or expelled, they’re like, 'Thanks, you just gave me time off from school. I don’t have to be at a place I don’t want to be anymore,’” she said.
Carolyn Treleven, executive director of teaching and learning in the Franklin Pierce School District, said that kind of traditional punishment might be a deterrent for some kids, but for a lot of people, it’s not.
The Franklin Pierce district does have a higher discipline rate than the state as a whole, but Treleven said they’re trying to find alternatives to suspensions.
To do that, she said school leaders have to figure out why a kid is breaking the rules. That includes understanding how kids who have lived through trauma act when they’re stressed.
“Not excusing the behavior – we still don’t want meltdowns and chair throwing or profane outbursts – but getting to what’s really underneath that a little bit and having kids learn coping strategies as opposed to just punishing the behavior without thinking about what was it that triggered that, what’s going on,” Treleven said.
This represents a big shift away from the kind of discipline policies that became common in schools in the 1990s. The emphasis then was on zero tolerance and removing kids who disrupted school.
But research has piled up showing that approach was flawed. A task force of psychologists found that exclusionary discipline doesn’t make schools safer or improve behavior.
At Gates High School, Hackney, the English teacher, emphasizes setting group norms in her classes. One day in the fall, she had her students watch a video called the Wisdom of Geese.
“What are some of the traits you noticed?” she asked the class. “What are some of the things you noticed that worked, if you’d like that to be our class?”
The video explains how, for example, geese fly in a V because it creates uplift and allows them to fly more efficiently.
One student, Ahlonna Morales, said she was struck by how the stronger geese take care of the weak ones.
“I thought it was pretty cool how when one of them falls back, two other ones come back to help it try to stay with everyone else,” she told the class.
The discussion lays the groundwork for mission statements the students write that then adorn the classroom walls. The aim is to help them care about each other’s success.
'I Didn't Know Anything Positive About Myself'
Hackney works to let the kids know that she cares, too. Xavier Harrison, a 17-year-old senior, said he appreciates that.
“There’s not a lot of people like Ms. Hackney, so I like speaking with Ms. Hackney,” he said. Harrison admits he has a history of getting in trouble for things like fighting and defiance. But he said he likes Gates better than his old school. Hackney said she’s had her own problems with his behavior, but she also tells him he should go to college and study philosophy.
“She always tells me about things that are positive about me,” he said. “I always hear about the negative stuff. I didn’t know anything positive about myself.”
Hackney said one realization she’s had since becoming a teacher is that you won’t get anything done unless the students know you value them.
“I had one kid two weeks ago, he was thinking about some experiences he had at another school and he said, 'Man, you got to teach to my heart,’” she said.
Hackney said that stopped her in her tracks.
“I was like, 'Who told you to say that?’ He’s like, 'Yeah, man, you got to teach to my heart,’” she said. “And I wrote it on the board and I talked to them about how brain science would back that statement. Make sure that my amygdala is soothed, essentially. Make sure that I’m okay there and I’m prepared to learn because if your amygdala is not soothed and you don’t feel loved and you feel like you’re on edge, you’re not going to be able to learn.”
Hackney said she and other teachers have to hold kids accountable and make them feel safe and listened to. That means striking a balance between expecting a lot from students and being mindful of their struggles. It also means showing them how to make amends when they mess up, so they can get back to learning.