Changing a school’s discipline-focused culture to one centered on restorative justice, compassion and empathy is possible if there is buy-in from school staff and students, and community partnerships that help reinforce the shared philosophy, said panelists at a Friday virtual session during the National Association of Secondary School Principals' annual National Principals Conference.
During the session, school and police officials from Cherry Hill High School West in New Jersey shared how they collaborated to reduce discipline referrals and replaced detentions and in-school suspensions with restorative circles to resolve conflicts. “The most important thing, the imperative for us, was to begin to shift this data and to shift this experience that our kids were having,” said Principal Kwame Morton.
Though the school has had success with this approach, its development and continuing efforts rely on funding, planning, staff training and consistent efforts to build relationships with every individual student, the school officials said.
When Morton became the school’s first African American principal eight years ago, he began to study the school’s discipline data and disproportionality trends that showed students of color were punished at higher rates than White students, which matched national discipline rates.
At about the same time in 2014, William Monaghan began his new position as the township’s police chief. Monaghan’s goal was to create more positive relationships between the police department and the community.
The collaboration between the school system and police department began to grow, first with police officers working with the school’s media center on various informational video campaigns, mentoring students and officers running track with students. The relationships strengthened incrementally leading up to a more comprehensive restorative justice program, Monaghan said.
“It's a critically important component of the program to have that connection and that buy-in from the police department, because if you don't have that, then this type of program isn't necessarily going to be successful as it could be because those relationships are not built,” Monaghan said.
Now, if Monaghan enters the school wearing his uniform, some people don’t recognize him because he more often spends time on campus out of uniform.
In addition to the school-police connections, Cherry Hill High School West has trained more than 180 staff members in restorative justice approaches that emphasize not every unwanted student behavior is a discipline infraction and many conflicts can be addressed through dialogue and reflection.
The school also implemented a train-the-trainers model so there can be continuous professional development for staff members newly hired by the school. Staff also modeled conflict resolution dialogue with students. Additionally, the school was deliberate in messaging about behavior expectations to students and families, as well as using consistent language around restorative justice practices.
Because the effort is not a top-down approach, the collaboration and buy-in from students, families, staff and police have been essential, Morton said.
“I understand and realize that lasting change only takes place when you have a great team that has worked together to produce that change,” Morton said.