- Cherry Creek School District No. 5
Building community through restorative practices
When Horizon Community Middle School began considering their discipline practices, they found one area where they could grow: out-of-school suspensions. Horizon implemented about 200 suspensions a year, and the leadership team knew that there must be a better solution.
“Kids learn better when they’re able to be at school,” Dean of Students Jordan Stoddard said. “There are times when suspension is a necessary outcome, but it is rarely a meaningful consequence. By removing a student, you don’t address the root issue and the problem will continue when the student returns from suspension.”
Horizon has been working on ways to meet the needs of all students over the past several years, including offering trainings for teachers in culturally responsive education and developing a shared language around equity. They began implementing a restorative practices approach three years ago, which focuses on helping students identify and repair the harm caused in conflict. Students are asked about the conflict, their role and what they can be accountable for, what the harm was and what everyone needs to move forward. This practice is also used for conflicts between students and staff members. After the first year of starting restorative practices, the number of suspensions was reduced by half. In recent years, the school has seen a significant reduction in physical and emotional conflicts and an increase in students resolving issues in a safe and meaningful way.
“We use a protocol with students who get into conflict,” Stoddard explained. “One thing leads to another, and suddenly students are yelling or getting into a physical altercation.”
When the school uses its restorative justice process, the students involved have a chance to connect with and understand each other, rather than leaving the school community, missing class and letting the hurt go unacknowledged. In some cases, the students even become friends. There’s a larger picture, as well -- students who witness the altercation can be impacted, too.
“I have overheard students talking about a conflict and how it impacted them,” science teacher Erica Wilkins said. “It can be scary and overwhelming to watch your classmates be in conflict with each other. Emotions are running high, and something like that can derail a whole class period.”
Wilkins pointed out that classroom teachers often shoulder the responsibility of managing a classroom after student conflict. She said that a restorative practice approach means less burden on teachers to handle students processing the conflict instead of being able to focus on the lesson.
“What it comes down to is building those positive relationships,” assistant principal Robert Jefferson said. “The traditional discipline methods don’t always allow those relationships to thrive, which creates a void in the classroom that harms our students’ ability to learn. This lets us address it, avoid grudges and create a safe space where everyone can take risks and be vulnerable. We’re Horizon Community, and the word ‘community’ is in our name for a reason.”