Pubdate: Fri, 30 Jun 2017
Source: Edmonton Sun (CN AB)
Copyright: 2017 Canoe Limited Partnership.
Author: Janet French
Page: 13


Restorative justice offers better way to discipline students than

A decade ago, principal Keith MacQuarrie was frustrated with the
number of students he was suspending for drugs and sending to board
hearings for chronic absenteeism.

The tipi room is sometimes used for restorative circles at the
Ermineskin Junior Senior High School in central Alberta.

He piped Frank Sinatra songs into the lunch detention room at
Ermineskin Junior/Senior High School in Maskwacis, hoping students
would be annoyed enough to follow the rules. It didn't work.

Now, when a student acts out at Ermineskin, everyone involved will sit
in a circle to discuss what happened, and how it affected them.

"It's way more time, but I feel it's way more powerful,"MacQuarrie

The circle discussions are a central component of a disciplinary
approach called restorative practices, or restorative justice.

Thousands of Edmonton students are suspended or expelled each year,
but experts say there are more effective ways of improving behaviour.

"Suspensions and expulsions often aggravate the things the student is
crying out for, and needing in their lives,"said Dorothy Vaandering,
an associate professor of education at Memorial University of

Some principals believe that isolating misbehaving students from
school sends a clear message their actions are unacceptable, said
Vaandering, who authored the Little Book of Restorative Justice in

However, it gives them no opportunity to fix the problem they caused,
she said.

Restorative practices also avoid placing blame, which can help build
more trusting relationships between students and school staff, said
Jacqueline Pei, an associate professor of educational psychology at
the University of Alberta.

Many of the kids have "stresses in their home life, or stresses in
their own functioning, or atypical brain development, or just having a
really lousy day," she said.

Restorative practices

Alberta's education ministry gives schools and boards the flexibility
to decide how best to deal with misbehaving students. Provincial law
gives only principals the power to suspend a student for longer than
one class period. Suspensions longer than five days are considered a
recommendation for expulsion, and trigger a hearing before the school

Advocates for a less punitive approach argue that in most cases,
sending a student away from school further fractures their
relationship with the people there, and is ineffective at addressing
the problems underlying bad behaviour.

Frequent school suspensions can lead to dropping out, poor academic
results, living in poverty, health problems and even jail, research
Dorothy Vaandering, associate professor of education at Montreal
university of Newfoundland suggests.

Restorative practices give students a chance to repair any harm
they've caused, whether it's facing the person they bullied or
painting over the wall they graffitied.

The approach uses talking circles, where everyone affected has a
chance to speak. Only the person holding an object - the "talking
piece" - can speak, and no one has to speak if they don't want to.

Schools using the technique well don't simply use talking circles when
there's a problem, Vaandering said. Teachers regularly hold classroom
check-in circles to ask how students would like to learn about a
topic, or what they saw on their walk to school that day.

For a couple of years, Ermineskin school had a coordinator whose role
was solely to organize circles, help train staff and meet with
families to help them understand the process.

Staff now routinely use small, informal circles to resolve minor

In the event of a more serious problem, like a fist fight or kids
bringing drugs to school, administrators organize a larger circle
involving the student or students, supportive family members, school
staff, an elder and any other relevant players.

The elder will say an opening prayer, and the "circle keeper" will
summarize what happened to prompt the circle. They'll ask each person
to explain how the incident made them feel, and what effect it had on

The meeting culminates with an agreement devised and signed by all the
participants. Staff check in with everyone later to see if they're
upholding their end of the agreement. "Those circles have been much
more powerful in changing behaviour than a suspension, and a parent
meeting, and then back to class. Like, a world of difference,"
MacQuarrie said.

In 2012-13, he recommended 10 students for expulsion. For the past two
years, it's been zero. The school has also eliminated referrals to the
First Nation's attendance board, he said.

Students who pose a safety threat may still be suspended, but the
suspension is shorter, and a circle is held when they return to
school, he said.

In Oakland, Calif., studies have found schools using restorative
practices increased graduation rates and reading levels and cut
out-of-school suspensions.

Although doubters may see a circle as too soft on wrongdoers,
Vaandering said it's far more challenging for students to face someone
they've hurt than spend a day at home.

Changing school culture to focus on reconciliation, not blame, is
tricky. Brenda Morrison, director of Simon Fraser University's Centre
for Restorative Justice and an associate professor of criminology,
said embracing restorative methods relies on a determined senior
school system administrator and a willingness to provide professional

Morrison is running a first-of-its-kind two-year graduate diploma
program for B.C. teachers to learn restorative practices.

It's a "significant paradigm shift" that requires staff to react
differently when they see kids break ing rules, and it can take years,
she said.

Restorative practices are also time-consuming, and teachers are
pressed for time, Pei said.

A few staff at Ermineskin still aren't completely sold on the
approach, said MacQuarrie.

"A restorative mindset is very different than the traditional school
discipline mindset that most of our teachers grew up with."

Conscious discipline

Across North America, some schools have taken a purposeful approach to
social and emotional learning where teachers' lessons include how to
regulate emotion and get along with others.

On an early June tour for education reporters at Van Ness Elementary
School in Washington, D.C., principal Cynthia Robinson-Rivers said
staff are trained in an approach called "conscious discipline," which
aims to correct children's behaviour while avoiding judgment,
punishment or rewards. For example, if a child is running in the
hallway, Robinson-Rivers would stop her and say, "We walk in the
hallways," then demonstrate a brisk stroll.

She will then say, "Let me see you walk," and mention the child did a
good job of walking.

It puts the focus on safe behaviour, rather than telling children what
not to do, she said.

In every school room is a "safe space" - a tent or a cosy corner where
a child can retreat if they feel overwhelmed.

When Van Ness staff began using conscious discipline in fall 2016,
Robinson-Rivers said she was skeptical.

By the end of the year, she overheard kids in pre-kindergarten telling
each other they didn't like to be shoved, and to please stop.

In addition to producing more thoughtful people, Robinson-Rivers said
teaching emotional skills is also a good predictor of later academic
success. Ninety per cent of Van Ness first graders read at a level
above the district average, she said.

Edmonton adoption

Although Edmonton educators say restorative practices are happening in
some schools, there is no concerted effort to train staff in the approach.

Talking circles that include both the rule-breaker and any victims are
infrequently held in Edmonton Catholic schools, said Robert Martin,
assistant superintendent of district operations.

Talking circles are happening "all over" Edmonton Public Schools, said
Gail Haydey, supervisor of district support services. Each school
decides how they'll use them, she said.

Programs that work with at-risk youth are also available to Edmonton
students while they are suspended or expelled.

Students with "criminal and socially deviant behaviour" can partake in
Edmonton Catholic Schools' Assessment, Intervention and Success Team
(ASIST) program, which matches them with social workers, teachers,
psychiatric nurses, addictions counsellors and school resource
officers. About 50 students a year use the program.

Also available at two Edmonton YMCA sites is the Alternative
Suspension program. Suspended students get help with homework,
counselling and take part in recreation activities.
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