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Restorative Practices in New School Discipline Policy

At its August 2008 meeting, the Denver Public Schools board approved a new discipline policy that includes restorative interventions. Created by a coalition school board members and community groups, the new policy seeks to lower the district's reliance on suspension and referral to law enforcement agencies. At the same time, they seek to give students and their parents more of a voice in the disciplinary process.

Impetus for the new policies came in part from a 2005 report published by the community group Padres and Jovenes Unidos that detailed the use of out of school suspensions and referrals to criminal justice agencies in Denver public schools. The report, Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track, showed a 71% increase in students referred to law enforcement between 2000 and 2004. In the 2004-05 school year alone, 1,200 incidents were dealt with in this manner. African American and Latino students were 70% more likely to receive such a referral than white students.

As a result, a restorative-based discipline process was developed and tested in six pilot schools. The results were promising. In Montebello High School, for example, the principal estimates that the approach has lowered out-of-school suspensions by 40%. The new policy extends this to all Denver schools.

The policy sets out the characteristics of discipline as:

  • Being explicit, reasonable, and timely
  • Having logical, fair, consistent, and age-appropriate consequences
  • Including a variety of prevention and intervention measures
  • Providing the opportunity for significant parent/guardian participation
  • Responding to individual differences among students with insight and sensitivity
  • Ensuring the opportunity for students to obtain an education

When a rule infraction occurs, staff members have three intervention options to choose from: administrative, restorative, and therapeutic. While the administrative is something done ‘to’ offenders and therapeutic calls for action on part of offenders (such as mental health counselling),  the restorative option is defined as:

“... problem solving interventions done “with” the offender. They are driven by the victim as much as is possible and focus on the harm caused and how it will be repaired. An assessment of the situation will be done, and a determination will be made whether a face-to-face meeting with all parties is appropriate (see Appendix for more information). Examples include family group conferencing, victim-offender mediation, or classroom peace circles.”

The policy outlines a "discipline ladder" and requires that infractions be dealt with at the lowest possible level. This gives students the opportunity to learn from the process rather than having their education interrupted by either suspension or referral to law enforcement.

Some behaviours continue to require immediate referral to police, such as unlawful sexual behaviour and indecent exposure. This call for mandatory referral troubles some advocates like the group Padres and Jovenes Unidos who fear the over-use of police referrals in maintaining order in the school environment.

However, the majority of school board members felt that the policy made significant improvements and that it was necessary to have it in place since the new school year had started a few days before the vote. The School Board approved the new policy 5 to 2.

Resources used for this article:

Lynette Parker
September 2008

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