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To curb conflict, a Colorado high school replaces punishment with conversation

February 20, 2014 at 6:32 PM EDT
At Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colo., students, parents and administration are meeting face-to-face to resolve student conflict with conversation. The number of physical altercations has taken a nosedive as this new type of disciplinary action, called “restorative justice,” replaces suspension. Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: curbing conflicts in high school.

Hari Sreenivasan looks at a new approach to discipline that replaces suspensions with conversations.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In Aurora, Colorado, principal Matthew Willis welcomes the recent changes at Hinkley High School, where 75 percent of the 2,000-plus students qualify for free and reduced meals.

Willis says student fights are down and respect among classmates is up.

MATTHEW WILLIS, Principal, Hinkley High School: Last year we had 48 percent reduction in out-of-school suspensions. When it comes to physical altercations between students, in 2007-‘8, we had approximately 263 physical altercations, and so far for this year, we have only had 31 physical altercations.

WOMAN: So, good morning. Thank you for being here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The turnaround, he says, began when Hinkley High started using a form of discipline called restorative justice.

MATTHEW WILLIS:  Every single year over the last three full years that we have been doing restorative justice, you see significant declines in defiance, disobedience and use of profanity.

BONNIE MARTINEZ, Dean of Students, Hinkley High School: This is called a talking circle, so when we have problems in this school, we come together and talk about it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, when a minor altercation does occur, students, parents and the dean face each other in a restorative circle.

BONNIE MARTINEZ: Restorative is that you bring back the kids, if it’s student with student. Or if it’s student with staff, you restore the relationship. So, if there’s conflict around wrongdoing, we come together and we talk about it, and we try to heal the harm that was caused from the incident.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Dean of students Bonnie Martinez facilitates.

BONNIE MARTINEZ: Speak openly and honestly, but with respect.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On the day we visited, two sophomores girls caught up in a physical fight were brought to a circle with their parents, instead of being suspended.

BONNIE MARTINEZ: So, this is our talking stick, so whoever is holding this is the one talking and everyone else is listening.

You say what happened from your point of view.

And you say what happened from your point of view.

And, sometimes, we don’t always agree on all the facts, or whatever.

STUDENT: And she called me the B-word, and then — and then we just started fighting.

STUDENT: That’s kind of a liar of you. She say, to be honest, and I think you have to be honest. I was here, and she come walking to me and just…

HARI SREENIVASAN: Students are asked to talk about the harm their actions may have caused, and Martinez requires everyone to sign an agreement.

BONNIE MARTINEZ: What do you take responsibility for? What do you think we could do to heal the harm that was caused?

STUDENT: I’m sorry for having these problems that we have been having, and I don’t want it to happen again.

BONNIE MARTINEZ: OK. You’re not going to be enemies, but you’re going to treat each other with respect?

That, to some people, may be viewed as a soft discipline, especially if you look at the Western culture. You know, we’re about war and violence. We’re not about peace and harmony. But, however, for those girls to come together, and for their families to come together, and talk about it, and to really — you know, to express truly, what happened, how did it affect me and others, what am I responsible for, and how do I solve it, that’s — that’s deeper than just writing up paperwork and one person goes their way and the other person goes their way, and nothing was ever communicated.

DEANNA KLINE, Student Counselor, Hinkley High School: What do we know about anger?  It is a secondary feeling. What is underneath anger?

STUDENT: A lot of deeper emotional…

DEANNA KLINE: A lot of deeper emotions and feelings.

HARI SREENIVASAN: At Hinkley, the restorative justice circles go beyond the dean’s office. Peer mentoring classes use role-playing to teach students how to conduct circles on their own.

MAN: How does that make you feel?

STUDENT: It pisses me off that he’s spreading rumors about me. Like, but I didn’t do nothing…

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sophomore Nyece Smith thinks the circles bring better results than suspension.

NYECE SMITH: It used to be like you just get sent home for five days. But that doesn’t solve nothing. You just sit there and you come back with the same anger.

DEANNA KLINE: When teachers don’t resolve the harm by doing restorative justice, then that conflict is always there. And usually what will happen is, kids will just stay angry. And I don’t like that teacher, and so I don’t care what you say. And they will just disrupt, disrupt, disrupt.

WOMAN: I’m deeply sorry about what’s going on.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Models like Hinkley’s have gained national attention after the Obama administration in January directed school districts to scrap overly zealous zero tolerance policies that led to automatic suspensions and criminal records.

Such policies, the officials said, impacted minorities at higher rates. Colorado’s legislature eliminated zero tolerance in schools 2012.

MATTHEW WILLIS:  The ideas of traditional discipline don’t exist anymore. When — in the old days, we — when a student or kid got into trouble, we would spank them. And we moved away from spanking, because it no longer met the values of our society.

The same is true with the traditional discipline, where it’s all about punishment, punishment, punishment. It’s not about restoring relationships. It’s not about taking responsibility for your actions. It’s about punishment. And so that no longer fits the society of our future. What fits the society of our future is people coming together on working and solving problems together.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And while Colorado is now ahead of the national movement, the state actually played a role in the making of zero tolerance policies, after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School.

SARAH PARK, The Denver Foundation: Any time you’re in a school, you have got all these stakeholders.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sarah Park is the director of education for the Denver Foundation, one of the sponsors of Hinkley’s restorative justice program.

SARAH PARK: In Colorado, our zero tolerance law was really in response to Columbine. And we were scared. We were all heartbroken. We were terrified, and we wanted to make sure kids were safe.

And so we thought, well, let’s do this. Let’s make sure — let’s make clear that this is non-negotiable. And that’s really where the intention around zero tolerance came from. Unfortunately, the way it played out was, was — was in more negative educational outcomes.

You can’t learn if you’re not there. And they also — there’s studies linking suspension to incarcerations. And it’s much more likely that if a kid is suspended, or repeatedly suspended, that they will end up in jail, and it’s much more likely that if they’re suspended even once in ninth grade, they’re more likely to drop out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Aurora police officer Jake Bunch, who is assigned to Hinkley High School, says social media has accelerated his need to rely on personal connections that can come from restorative justice.

OFFICER JAKE BUNCH, Aurora Police Department: With like Facebook and Twitter, information just spreads so quickly now, that it’s hard to stay on top of it, because the kids know about something that’s going to go down way before we could ever know.

If kids — if I build that relationship with them, and they know they can come talk to me before it becomes a violent issue, it ties right in with restorative justice.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Not all conflicts can be resolved through restorative circles. Even supporters see the process as one of many approaches. And skeptics question if stopping down class time for circles limits learning. Test scores at Hinkley High School hover below the state average.

For his part, principal Willis remains a strong believer in the approach and is sharing the school’s methods with districts across the state.