When Jerrie Kammerman came on board as principal of Missouri City Middle School in February 2014, she knew that the school was “a bit in crisis.”

There was some “lack of structure, a lot of discipline issues and a lot of fights,” says Kammerman, a veteran administrator in Texas’s Fort Bend Independent School District. Fights were so common, at least one or two a day, that it wasn’t until May that the school had a fight-free day. The first fight-free week didn’t occur until mid-May.

Fistfights, cursing, defiance, and other acts of disruptive behavior and rule breaking typically resulted in an in-school or out-of-school suspension. In some cases, students were expelled, despite the fact that one of the biggest barriers to academic success is time out of class, Kammerman says.

It became clear that there was a lot of anger within the building, she says. “The kids didn’t feel like they were being heard. If there was a problem, there was no getting to the bottom of why we have a problem. It was, ‘You are a problem. Go home.’ They’d fall behind in class work and come back to school angrier. It was a vicious cycle.”

Kammerman was determined to find a different path. At a conference that spring, she read about a session spotlighting an alternative approach to discipline that shifts the focus from punishment to wrongdoing prevention. She had her entire administrative team attend the session on restorative justice. Some attended twice.

With its roots in the juvenile court system, restorative justice (sometimes referred to as restorative practices, restorative discipline, and restorative measures) is not a new concept. School districts in California, Colorado and Minnesota have long been reporting success with its focus on repairing harm, rebuilding relationships, and collectively holding those who do harm accountable for their actions.

School districts increasingly are embracing the practice as a way to address the disproportionately high rates of suspension and expulsion for minority students. They are rejecting the punitive, zero-tolerance policies that many civil rights and children’s advocates say created the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” by pushing students out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice system.

The improvements at Missouri City Middle began appearing quickly, says Kammerman. “We saw a good reduction in office referrals. We began to see a change in the culture and climate in our hallways and in our classrooms,” she says. “Our relationships with our parents was more positive. The climate of the campus was shifting.”

Move in a Different Direction In Texas, a San Antonio school had grabbed headlines because of a dramatic decline in discipline problems after adopting the approach in 2012.

Ed White Middle School reduced out-of-school suspensions by 87 percent and in-school suspensions by 29 percent in the first year of implementing restorative practices, says Marilyn Armour, who worked with the school as director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue.

In-school suspensions fell by another 52 percent for the pilot group in the second year; tardies declined by 39 percent. The once-academically challenged school achieved stars of distinction for student performance in English, math and social studies.

When it comes to discipline, restorative justice presents “an amazing opportunity to really move things in a different direction,” says Armour, a professor of social work. Her institute now partners with the Texas Education Agency to expand restorative discipline training statewide.

Fort Bend ISD is one of the districts that has signed on. Formal tools and strategies were implemented during the 2015-2016 school year at 13 of the district’s 14 middle schools, including Missouri City Middle, starting with the sixth grade. In 2016-2017, restorative discipline will be implemented at all 14 middle schools in the district.

“Schools have talked for years about the importance of building strong relationships with students, but when it comes to discipline, it’s as if we all of a sudden cross into the old-school style of command and control and severe consequences,” says Fort Bend Superintendent Charles Dupre.

With the use of restorative practices, the district aims to “put actions to our words about the climate that we want to create by engaging students in a way that allows them to grow even through the discipline process,” Dupre says.  “You don’t accomplish that by simply punishing students when they misbehave.”

Kammerman recalls a student whose refusal to comply with a teacher’s request to stop talking escalated into an uncharacteristic outburst of cursing and anger. “In the past, he would have been given an in-school suspension for using profanity,” she says.

Instead, after the assistant principal engaged the student in a restorative conference and contacted his mother, he discovered the family was experiencing severe financial difficulties. There was no food in the house. No electricity. After getting the student a meal, comforting him, and letting him know that teachers and staff at school were there to help, the conversation turned to what he needed to do to make things right with the teacher who had been disrespected.

“This doesn’t mean we don’t give consequences, because we do,” says Kammerman. “But we look at each situation individually as to what’s the right response. In his case, an apology is probably all that’s needed because this kid was expressing frustration over something he didn’t have control over.”

As is common with other districts that use restorative practices, Fort Bend continues to use suspensions and mandatory expulsions as it sees fit. “There are some behaviors that need assertive and immediate consequences,” Dupre says. “Restorative discipline works well and it works in many cases, but it is not a one-size fits-all answer.”

Making Amends Restorative justice brings together parties voluntarily following a crime or wrongdoing to address the harm committed, make amends, and restore, to the extent possible, the trust that was broken in the relationship, Amour explains.

The wrongdoer, after making amends and taking responsibility, can and should have a place as an active, contributing member of the community, thereby reducing the likelihood that he or she will reoffend, says Keith Hickman, director of continuing education for the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) Graduate School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

That’s a completely different mindset when compared to the traditional punitive approach to justice, where “the behavior and the individual are bundled together and cast out,” he says.

A variety of practices and strategies are used to facilitate restorative justice, including small group discussions called circles, peer mediation, restorative conferences, and re-entry conferences, among others. Some practices are reactive and designed to help repair or respond to a harm. Others are proactive and focus on building community and relationships.

Using talking circles and check-in circles, for example, are important for establishing a trusting relationship that can be tapped into when wrongdoing occurs, Hickman says. They help students feel obliged to the community and invested in repairing harm.

Failure of Zero Tolerance Education and social science researchers, child welfare and civil rights organizations, and lawmakers have urged a move away from highly punitive, zero-tolerance school discipline policies. Developed in response to initiatives such as the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, and the Columbine school shootings in 1999, the policies were intended to make schools safer.

Research shows that didn’t happen. One study by the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force found that schools with higher rates of suspension and expulsion appeared to have “less satisfactory ratings of school climate, to have less satisfactory school governance structures, and to spend a disproportionate amount of time on disciplinary matters. “

What did happen was an overuse of suspension and expulsion, often for minor infractions –stealing a bottle of water from the cafeteria, for example – and applying those punishments disproportionately to certain groups of students.

According to federal data released in June, black students grades K-12 are nearly four times as likely to be suspended as white students. Black students are also nearly twice as likely to be expelled – removed from school with no services – as are white students. And the disparity also exists for the youngest children. Black preschoolers are 3.6 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as white preschoolers.

Students with disabilities in grades K-12 are more than twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspension as their non-disabled peers. And American Indian or Alaska Native, Latino, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and multiracial boys are likewise disproportionally selected. They represent 15 percent of K-12 students but 19 percent of K-12 students receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions, according to the federal Civil Rights Data Collection.

The number of students given suspension declined by nearly 20 percent between 2011-20122 and 2013-2014, but the costs remain high, both to students and taxpayers.

A recent analysis by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project estimates that suspensions in 10th grade alone probably result in more than 67,000 additional high school dropouts nationally. Over the course of a lifetime, each additional dropout is responsible for $163,000 in lost tax revenue and $364,000 in other social costs, such as health care and criminal justice expenses, according to the study. Cumulatively the cost for those 67,000 dropouts exceeds $35 billion, a likely conservative estimate, say researchers.

The federal departments of education and justice issued joint guidelines in 2014 recommending that schools revise punitive discipline policies. In their place, the agencies highlighted alternatives such as restorative practices, noting that they have the added benefit of fostering a positive school climate.

The failure of zero tolerance and the issue of disproportionality have “been the impetus for all of these kinds of restorative programs,” says Vickie Shoap, a restorative justice specialist with Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools.

Shoap joined the district in 2011, the same year that a student committed suicide after he’d been recommended for expulsion for a minor drug infraction.

The energy behind restorative justice and “the drive and critical need for it has blossomed in the last five to eight years,” agrees Armour. “Now things are really skyrocketing.”

Armour points to Dayton, Ohio; Chicago; and Syracuse as examples of school districts that have not only instituted restorative practices but have also revamped their Code of Conduct to include restorative measures. New York City and Minnesota’s St. Paul Public Schools have recently committed key funding to expanded restorative justice initiatives.

The U. S. Department of Justice is funding a $3 milllion, two-year study conducted by the RAND Corporation of 22 Pittsburgh schools implementing restorative practices. The National Institutes of Health committed $3.2 million for another RAND study of 14 middle schools in Maine using restorative practices.

The Maine study is analyzing data on school climate and connectedness, student achievement, empathy, bullying behavior, and peer attachment. The Pittsburgh study is examining the challenges and successes related to implementation along with student behavior and other measures of school safety.

Advocates for Social Justice San Francisco Unified School District has been implementing restorative discipline practices since 2009, when restorative work became the first piece of the district’s intentional effort to address disproportional discipline and high suspensions, says Thomas Graven, executive director of the district’s Office of Pupil Services.

Recent data show that the effort has paid dividends: Between 2011 and 2015, overall suspensions were down by 57 percent. African-American suspensions were down by 61 percent white, while Latino suspensions were down by 56 percent.

While some of that decline “can definitely be attributed to our work around restorative practices,” Graven notes that the district now uses it in conjunction with other measures, especially Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a system developed by the federal education department.

Along with its emphasis on community building and relationships, a key benefit of restorative practices has been that it offers the district “permission to be advocates for social justice,” says Graven. “It really is our job as administrators, counselors, and teachers to advocate for kids who are being adversely impacted by the disciplinary system.”

With more than 100 schools in the district, “we are striving for every school to use restorative practices, but the use does vary from site to site,” says Ben Kauffman, a supervisor with the Office of Pupil Services.

Restorative practice coaches actively work with schools to assess their needs and determine how to most effectively partner with them, he says.

The issue of training and mentoring is of major concern to Shoap and others.

“People really do need to be trained and have skills to do this work before they bring victims and offenders together. Before they go into a conflict satiation where multiple families are involved,” she says. “It’s not something you learn in a day.”

The district has recently trained nearby Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools and Virginia’s Loudoun County Public Schools in its certification process.

Too Soft? A common concern lobbed at the restorative justice approach to school discipline is that it’s “too soft” on wrongdoers. Advocates and practitioners like Shoap are quick to disagree.

“It’s very hard to sit down and talk about what you’ve done and who you’ve harmed and how you can change that behavior and make things right,” she says.

Conversely, giving someone a three- or five-day suspension at home, where they can sleep late, watch TV, text, and even keep up some school-based drama or hostility, is easy and does not evoke behavior change, she says.

“One of the real selling points for our administrators has been [that] you don’t see these kids back again because they’ve learned something. They’ve made it right,” says Shoap. “And that’s why it evokes behavior change.”

That sentiment is echoed at Missouri City Middle School. Kammerman tells naysayers that the goal is not punishment but teaching discipline. “They’re two different concepts. Discipline is really about students taking ownership for their behavior and learning how to manage it. And recognizing when to ask for help.”

Michelle Healy is a staff writer with American School Board Journal.

Reprinted with permission from American School Board Journal, August 2016. Copyright 2016, National School Boards Association. All rights reserved.