A proactive approach to reducing student conflict and bullying
CASTLE ROCK— Student-on-student conflict, verbal disagreements between students at school, and bullying are things that naturally arise at many schools in Douglas County and across the U.S. Proactively establishing a positive school culture is key in reducing and preventing these kinds of occurrences. Without a positive community established in which students are invested, kids and teens will not make the connection between their behaviors and how it disrupts the classroom and school culture.
In Douglas County School District (DCSD), which philosophically believes in giving schools choice, school building leaders determine the path for their school’s culture and prevention activities. DCSD offers a menu of programs and supports that are vetted, evidence-based and research-based approaches to building a culture and holding students accountable. Team U.P. (Universal Prevention), part of DCSD’s Prevention and School Culture Department, is a mighty group of district staff that are partnering with schools with the main priority of helping them create something called a Restorative Culture. Team U.P. helps establish a positive school community and supports the social emotional needs of staff and students.
A Restorative Culture is philosophically based in fostering relationships, strengthening understanding, repairing harm and building strong school communities. Also known as Restorative Practices, the approach creates a safe culture for connection and dialogue and leads to a more equitable and inclusive environment that emphasizes relationships and respect.
|"There are a lot of misperceptions around restorative practices— that we do circles, say I’m sorry and sing 'Kumbaya.' No. We hold kids accountable, and there’s a right way and a wrong way to hold kids accountable."|
“The power of restorative practices is that proactive piece. You can’t restore something that wasn’t there. So first you need to put energy towards building that, building positive community,” says Personalized Learning Director of MTSS, Zac Hess. “If you don’t have a positive culture established, why would students care if they offend?”
Restorative Practices are more than circling up in elementary school, as some parents may have seen their kids do in classrooms. It’s really about creating an environment that kids want to live in, with a focus on relationships and respect. When there is harm done, Restorative Practices asserts that it is not just about the rules broken, it is about the damage done to relationships and the community. Those who have done harm have to be held accountable by repairing the harm so that they are able to be reintegrated back into the community. This is how the social/emotional health of our youth is secured by communicating that the student is not a bad person. Their behavior was unacceptable and they need to take responsibility for making things right. The key is, that the student needs to feel safe to take responsibility and then know they still belong to a supportive learning community.
This doesn’t mean that there is no accountability. In fact, accountability increases. Hess says, “There are a lot of misperceptions around restorative practices— that we do circles, say, 'I’m sorry' and sing kumbaya. No. We hold kids accountable, and there’s a right way and a wrong way to hold kids accountable. You could punish them, but I prefer accountability, and trying to communicate to a kid that they are still worth something but that their behavior is not okay. Not, ‘it’s okay Johnny, you can call me names, do drugs, bully, or create an unsafe environment.’ That’s not what I’m saying. We’ve got to hold him accountable and communicate that the behavior is not okay, but that he’s still loved and part of the community. ‘It sounds like something is going on. You can’t do these things, these things are inconsistent with our community expectations, but let’s figure out what the heck is going on and how you are going to repair the harm so we can reintegrate you back into our community.’ It’s just a change in that focus.”
Amber Struthers, an intervention specialist who is new to DCSD, talked about her experience with Restorative Practices.
“As an intervention specialist, I tend to get students who are already frustrated with school because they do not get it. Last week, I was working with a ‘challenging’ student and he got upset and told another student he was going to kill them. I have a relationship with him, but normally I would have jumped into talking to him about saying those things to other students. Instead, I asked him, ‘are you okay?’ He broke down and started crying telling me how much he hated school and how his teacher hates him. He went on and on, and I listened and told him I understood why he was so frustrated. I asked him what he needed from me. He said he wanted to be alone. I understood he needed some space, but I let him know an important part of our classroom was that every student felt safe. He automatically said he needed to apologize to the student he said he was going to kill because that did not make them feel safe. I let him take care of it on his own and he did a beautiful job. After, he and the student started working together on the assignment. I was left feeling amazed at how smoothly that situation went and how I could have handled it a different way and received a much different response. This way, all students and myself were respected and safe in a situation that may have turned into a much larger behavior problem.”
As one might imagine, training in Restorative Practices doesn't happen overnight and neither does building and maintaining a positive school culture. Daily challenges continue to occur and teachers and school staff are already so busy. This is why Hess is hoping to get students involved, which would give them ownership over the process and a great learning opportunity.
“What you’ll hear in the schools is Restorative Practices sounds great but I don’t have time to have a restorative meeting and do mediation. The kid brought drugs to school, he’s gone, done,” Hess says. “I get it, I know the pressure. It’s hard. But my idea is that our team tries to implement this again in the district, and let’s have a student leadership opportunity where kids run those things.”
For instance, Hess suggests students engage in Restorative Justice practices, in which they would sit with the advisor and mediate a situation.
“This is occurring in Aurora. This is occurring in Denver. It’s occurring all over the country,” Hess says. “It’s the students that put in the energy and time and say, ‘fighting is not okay in our school, how are we going to hold this kid accountable,’ as opposed to ‘let’s just suspend him for a three days and hope that everything is miraculously better afterwards.’ We know that is ridiculous.”
Hess has a vision for DCSD district staff and school leaders.
“Our hope is that we are able to encourage and support a restorative district community. That when schools look at their Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) they include Restorative Practices as both a universal, prevention-based support and also a targeted layer of support in all domains of support: academic, behavioral, mental health, health and wellness and family/community engagement.”