A new look at discipline: resolving conflicts, repairing harm, healing

By Shelby Stewart-Soldan
Staff Writer
Brandon Twp. — During the regular meeting of the Brandon Board of Education, Brandon High School Principal Dan Stevens gave a presentation on the high school’s implementation of restorative practices as a possible alternative to traditional disciplinary measures.
“A few weeks ago, I had a student come into my office. He was actually sent down to the office. He was sent down to the office for bad-mouthing a teacher, throwing a pencil, a kid that I’ve had experience with a few different times lately, and over the last couple of years. I knew that he was coming down to my office, and I was thinking ‘what am I going to do with this kid?’ he’s been down in my office before, haven’t really seemed to have any success with him when it comes to discipline, so I’m very frustrated waiting for him to come down to the office,” he said. “Then I see Mrs. Hagerman, our social worker. I went out and talked to her, said I needed some help with him, I just don’t know what to do.”
Stevens said that the traditional methods, such as suspension, are not teaching the student to change their behavior. Restorative practices are something that the district has done for years, but are now really digging into at the high school level.
“Alternative to traditional disciplinary measures focused on punishment. The focus here is on resolving conflict, repairing harm, and healing relationships,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, I could have suspended this kid, I could have sent him home for two days, I could have talked to his parents, I could have done a lot of different things with this kid, but at the end of the day, what does that really do? Yeah it disciplines the behavior, but what about the next time? And the time after that? What we decided to do with this kid, he came into my office, Mrs. Hagerman came into my office, and we just talked. And when we talked we found out all kinds of things that were going on with him. Things with students, teachers and at home. When we really dug in and listened to this kid, we found out there was a lot more going on. We can’t expect kids to come to Brandon High School and learn if they have all this other stuff that they’re bringing with them every single day.”
While restorative practices are not done instead of discipline, it would be in addition to as another step to get to the root of an issue.
“When we do those things instead of just suspending kids, we’re going to have a decrease in suspensions. We’re going to have an improved school culture, both with our staff and our kids. It’s going to bring kids together,” said Stevens. “That teacher, if you were to ask right now, the past three weeks, she hasn’t had too much of an issue with this student at all. It truly has made a difference. If we had just suspended that kid, sent him on his way, yelled and screamed at him, he probably would have just come back the next day frustrated, mad and done the same thing all over again.”
The main points of restorative practices are to address and discuss the needs of the school community, build healthy relationships between educators and students, resolve conflict, hold individuals and groups accountable, reduce, prevent and improve harmful behavior, and repair harm and restore positive relationships.
“We hear the word bullying a lot, not just at Brandon, you hear it all over,” said Stevens. “And these are the types of things we want to get to the root of. Does it take more time for us as administrators? Does it take more time for our counselors, does it take more time for our social workers, to really dig in? Heck yeah it does. But what we’re finding is that it’s worth it. It’s going to help our kids learn, it’s going to help our kids prosper, it’s going to help our test scores go up. Because they’re going to be here, they’re going to care.”
The goal for the school-wide strategy is to create a sense of belonging and community among staff and students. The administration will also host restorative circles, which are peer-led practices in response to disruptive incidents and deal with those involved in order to move past an incident.
“Our social worker, Megan Koslowski, the assistant principal, are actually going in and doing these restorative circles in the class to try to find out what’s going on,” he said. “And we’ve seen, in cases, where kids that absolutely detested each other, are now best friends. And we’ve seen this in a couple different classrooms. Just by going in and talking to them and getting to know them as the young adults they are and not just a student number.”
The goal of the restorative practices and the restorative circles is to increase the resiliency of students in school and out of school, enable students to become self-sufficient in resolving conflict in the future, resolve internal conflict in healthy ways, establish effective communication skills to use in life and work, and to increase confidence in decision making.
“Participants in a restorative circle are encouraged to be open and honest about their perspectives regarding a number of topics that come up at school. Allows students to hear different perspectives, and understand why someone might feel or say something,” he said. “So this is big for our kids, we’re finding. And we’re going to have some data to explore it even more. The goal is not to discipline a kid, but we want to change habits over time. We want to change how our kids think and what they do and change their habits so they can be productive students and productive citizens as well.”

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