“When you separate students from the educational community by suspending them, the students lose their right to education for a few days.”
A few days before Thanksgiving, students at Bard Early College High School in West Baltimore are sitting in a circle with Literature professor Nelly Lambert, talking about the highs and lows of their week.
“My mom was driving me to school this morning and we saw a little girl, maybe two or three years old, walking on the street by herself,” one student began. “My mom stopped and started asking around to see if anyone knew where she belonged. It made me sad.”
The student explained that, with the help of neighbors, she and her mother were able to get the girl back home, where her older sister was watching her while their mother was at work. The story started a conversation among the students about their own families and how they often have to take on adult responsibilities.
“I have to plan my little sister’s birthday party because no one else seems to be doing it,” another student added. “I think we’re going to Chuck E. Cheese—I hate Chuck E. Cheese.” All the students laugh.
It’s a remarkably comfortable, casual atmosphere, and virtually all of the students share personal stories. Some are excited about the upcoming homecoming dance, others worry that they don’t have anyone to go with yet. One student complains about the 66 he got on his Spanish homework. When another student worries that she’s failing music, her classmates encourage her to talk to the teacher.
These weekly 45-minute circles are called “salus” (Latin for “safety”), and they are one element of Bard’s integration of restorative practices. The school’s guidance counselors circulate prompts for the teachers to use to facilitate conversation during salus, hoping that all students will take advantage of the chance to be heard, but Bard Principal Francesca Gamber says, the students just as often generate the topics on their own.
“They talk about their friends, their families, their relationships,” she says. “And it also comes around to current events, whether it’s the violence in Baltimore or the pictures of local private school kids wearing racist Halloween costumes that recently circulated online.”
Bard is a Baltimore City public school that opened in 2015 with OSI support. Its students are immersed in an academically demanding college preparatory program in the 9th and 10th grades. The program segues directly into a two years of college coursework in the 11th and 12th grades which can culminate in an associate’s degree. Bard has also been an early adopter of restorative practices, which OSI and Baltimore City Schools are now working to expand throughout the district.
At Bard, restorative practices—most often restorative circles like the one in Dr. Lambert’s class— are also used as a tool for instruction and as an alternative form of discipline, one that works to actually resolve conflicts and avoid removing students from schools by suspending them. When there is a conflict or other discipline issue in the school, a member of the administration will facilitate a restorative circle with the students, teachers, and anyone else involved— sometimes including parents. Participants take turns holding a “talking stick” — often a ball or little toy—which allows them to be heard. The facilitator then suggests a resolution on which all parties ultimately must agree.
Introducing restorative practices to the district is a continuation of OSI’s successful work in Baltimore over the last 14 years to reduce suspensions, which dropped from over 26,000 in 2004 to 6,800 last year. The Maryland Department of Education now requires school districts throughout the state to change their discipline codes, as Baltimore did, to eliminate harsh and inequitable practices.
“When you separate students from the educational community by suspending them, the students lose their right to education for a few days,” says Gamber. “And when the students return, the conflict is still there, unresolved.”
Gamber acknowledges that suspensions are sometimes necessary for serious discipline issues, but says that, when it becomes commonplace, it makes kids feel disposable. “It’s a great injustice to throw kids away.”
In a January event at the University of Baltimore, Baltimore City Schools and OSI-Baltimore officially announced the roll out of CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises’s “Blueprint for Success.” Under the priority of “addressing the whole child,” the plan supports the expansion of restorative practices to 15 additional schools in the next academic year and all city schools within the next five years.
Among the speakers at the launch were Santelises, OSI Director Diana Morris, and City Schools Chief of Staff Allison Perkins-Cohen, who was executive director of the Baltimore Curriculum Project (BCP) ten years ago, when OSI made its first grant to BCP to help implement restorative practices at City Springs Elementary as a pilot program. “It was the most impactful grant I’ve ever been a part of,” Perkins-Cohen said in her remarks at the January event.
City Springs, located blocks from the Perkins Homes housing project, serves the poorest population in the district. When Rhonda Richetta took over as principal in 2006, the school was chaotic.
“The culture was violent and kids were ready to fight in a snap,” she says. “I spent most of my time breaking up fights, trying to resolve fights.”
Richetta says that the school’s test scores were low and that’s all anybody wanted to talk about. “I thought, before we can talk about test scores, we need to do something to affect the culture.”
During her first year at City Springs, Richetta had a conversation with Muriel Berkeley, the founder of Baltimore Curriculum Project and a member of the OSI-Baltimore Advisory Board who was appointed to the School Board in 2015. Berkeley suggested that Richetta take a weeklong training with the International Institute of Restorative Practices.
“I got excited,” Richetta says of the training. “I remember thinking, ‘This is what we need, this could work.” Richetta and BCP applied to OSI for a grant to get training for everyone, including teachers and staff, as well as coaches to help with implementation.
At first, some teachers were resistant.
“The first question I got was ‘Does this mean that you’re not going to suspend people?'” Richetta says. “Teachers had gotten into the practice of just putting out the problem – it was just ‘get out.’ We had to change the way we talked to students.”
In the past, Richetta says, “It was usually teachers telling administrators he did this, he did this, then administrators saying ‘Why did you do that?’ and then ‘Here’s what’s going to happen…’ The child gets angry and resentful and thinks ‘No one’s listening to me.’ It’s not fair. Their side needs to be heard,” she says. “Once they realize that they’re going to be heard, kids don’t want to fight, they want to come to school in a peaceful environment.”
In the school’s first year implementing restorative practices, suspensions dropped from 86 to just 10. Over the next few years, the percentage of students functioning at grade level went up significantly, as did enrollment, and City Springs went from a school of last resort to one that parents wanted their children to attend.
“As the culture was getting better, our test scores were getting better,” says Richetta. City Springs has since expanded to include a middle school and has become a model for schools all over the country looking to integrate restorative practices into their school community.
Karen Webber, director of OSI-Baltimore’s Education and Youth Development program, had a similar experience when she began teaching in Baltimore City Public Schools. “I couldn’t wait to introduce stimulating topics, inspire rich and exciting classroom discussions, and sharpen critical thinking skills,” she says. “But my efforts were met with blank stares at best and disruptive jesting, outlandish comments, or other inappropriate behaviors at worst.”
Webber also attended a restorative practices training and began integrating circles into her curriculum. “The results were phenomenal,” she says. “Students quickly saw the process as a means to have their voices heard. I learned firsthand of the adversities my students faced and the resulting trauma they experienced.”
As Webber went on to become a school principal, then director of City Schools’ Office of Student Support and Safety, and ultimately an OSI director in 2015, she continued to advocate for broader integration of restorative practices. The district-wide roll out that begins this year is truly the culmination of a dream for her.
“We know that restorative practices create positive relationships in school communities, increase attendance, decrease the need for suspensions, and generally create improved conditions for teaching, learning, and student success,” she says. “I also know from experience that this will be a tremendously helpful tool for educators. I can’t wait for more of them to learn about it.”
Akil Hamm, Chief of the Baltimore City Schools Police force, has a giant whiteboard in his office where he keeps track of data on arrests in Baltimore City Schools — 20 in the current academic year as of early December, compared to 34 at the same time the previous year— as well as other data, including diversions to Teen Court (59), the Department of Juvenile Services (22), and Restorative Response Baltimore (42) (formerly known as Community Conferencing, founded by 1998 OSI Community Fellow Lauren Ambramson.
Hamm, says his goal is to eliminate arrests from city schools entirely. “We are no longer a police department that arrests students,” he says. “It’s a new day.” He adds that two years ago, before he became chief, there were 90 arrests at this point in the year.
Just as importantly, Hamm says, there have been many fewer complaints about school police conduct and zero complaints about excessive force.
Hamm attributes the turnaround to restorative practices, which he first embraced after he received training more than five years ago. In his first year as chief, he mandated that all 100-plus members of the force undergo the training.
“As long as you buy into it, it will make a difference,” he says. “To be honest, I’ve gotten no push back from the troops. A lot of people outside of the system say ‘You need to arrest students, you need to suspend them — kids have to be safe!’ The truth is, by actually dealing with underlying conflicts, we are making schools safer. There’s a lot of trauma in this city.”
Officer Jeffrey Jones, who has been a school police officer for more than 15 years, says it’s taken time for students, and particularly parents, to buy into restorative practices, but that, ultimately, they see the results.
“At first, parents think nothing is being done – they don’t see immediate punishment,” says Jones. “After a while, you see a change in students behavior. Parents and kids start asking for circles. Kids think, ‘I can be heard, things can get solved.'”
“It has definitely enhanced us as school police,” he says. “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that people just want to be heard. I didn’t realize.”
As OSI and City Schools roll out restorative practices to all schools over the next five years, Jones hopes students, parents, and educators embrace it.
“It’s a slow process,” he says. “But it works. You see a change in behavior—not overnight, but you definitely see the change happening and it’s a wonderful thing.”