How restorative practices are improving relationships and reducing conflict in Detroit

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    Photo Credit: Marvin Shaouni

    Can using restorative practices with students be the key to building community in Detroit? We think the idea has merit.

    According to Henry McClendon, program officer at The Skillman Foundation, Detroit doesn’t have a crime problem; we have a relationship problem.

    He believes that crime is the symptom, while broken relationships are the problem.

    When crime happens, we treat the symptom. We ask what law was broken, who broke it, and what kind of punishment it deserves. It keeps victim and offender apart.

    The same thing happens in schools. Students get in trouble, and they’re suspended or expelled. Once back at school, the perpetrator is still angry, the victim is still angry — or afraid. And the suspended student’s chance of graduating on time begins to buckle.

    But what happens if, instead of using an adversarial approach, we deal with conflict using a restorative approach that McClendon believes is more solution focused — one that treats the problem?

    The restorative process brings victim and offender together to acknowledge the harm that occurred, study its impact, and think through what needs to happen to make things right. This restores balance and justice and prevents harm from happening again.

    “I’m not saying we don’t have any jails, and we don’t have any police officers,” says McClendon. But, “if all we do is come up with stricter laws — you know get tough on crime, zero tolerance — you can’t hire enough police and you can’t build enough jails to solve that problem.”

    McClendon is an expert on restorative practices, which in its simplest form is a process that builds community and social coherence. He has regionally represented the International Institute for Restorative Practices and trained many local people on its merits

    He is on a personal mission to see Detroit become the first large, urban restorative city in the country. One obvious place for that change to start is in schools.

    Preventing, intercepting problems

    At Plymouth Educational Center in Detroit, a charter school district made up of a K-8 school, a 9th grade academy, and a 10th to 12th grade high school, restorative practices are being fully implemented to help students and teachers get along, set boundaries and find support.

    According to the center’s interim superintendent, Dr. Christopher Plum, opening “circles” start the morning. These circles give students a platform to check in with their classmates and teachers, talk about what’s on their minds, and share how they are feeling. The small amount of time spent on creating tighter relationships has benefits; students not only celebrate personal achievements with their peers, but also talk openly about struggles at home or elsewhere with support from their classmates and teacher.

    The idea is this: with distractions aired and out of the way, students can better focus on learning. Teachers know what’s going on with their students, and that alone can lead to a different outcome for troubled students.

    When conflicts do arise, they are treated in a restorative way so they become teachable moments that improve the culture of the classroom and the school, rather than diminishing it.

    Since implementing the system three years ago, students at Plymouth have become more proactive, rather than reactive, with problems that arise. Before, notes Plum, “The dean of students wouldn’t know there was a problem until somebody’s nose got broken. This way, students are empowered to stay ahead of that stuff.”

    McClendon shares the story of a Highland Park teacher who was trained in restorative practices. She had a class that was quickly spiraling out of control, so she created a circle and shared how the students’ behavior made her feel. She asked the students to answer a series of restorative questions, the last being what needed to happen to make things better.

    The students came up with their own classroom guidelines. By using a fair process and engaging students in the decisions, discipline issues diminished.

    At Detroit’s Osborn Academy, a teacher trained in restorative practices used the methodology to foster higher expectations. When grades came out, she called a circle and asked students what happened, how they felt about their grades, who was impacted by the grades, and how and what needed to be done to improve their grades by the end of the next semester.

    The students answered the questions and then created their own individual plans for improvement. She went from chasing kids down to complete their work to students chasing her down for extra work.
    Keeping kids in school

    At the simplest level, restorative practices help more kids stay in school, keeping them off the street and out of the juvenile justice system and increasing the likelihood of graduating on time.

    Research shows that if a child misses five to nine days of school, his or her chance of graduating on track drops to 63 percent; and that drops down to 41 percent at the 10-day mark. Since the purpose of school is to graduate kids on track and on time, suspension seriously blocks a child’s chance for academic success.

    “If you’re kicking kids out, you are not helping them to graduate on time,” says McClendon. “You’re actually working against the very thing that you say you’re there to do.”

    Monica Evans, a police officer with the Detroit Police Department, works to prevent youth violence and is a strong believer in restorative practices. She works with the hard-knocks students: gang members and students with destructive behaviors who have been identified as most likely to be expelled.

    She says that because of zero tolerance policies, it’s been difficult getting administrators to buy into restorative practices. Yet, when they do, the results are astounding.

    Evans worked with Osborn Schools and saw its suspensions drop from 340 to 14 in one school year using restorative practices. The school’s crime stats also decreased during the same period.

    Keeping kids in school is a significant reason to use restorative practices. With no place to go, out-of-school youth may commit crimes or become victims of crime. Police officers’ hands are somewhat tied as there is no truancy offense when youth are legally out of school.

    That spells nothing but trouble.

    Alice Thompson, CEO of Black Family Development, Inc. in Detroit, another proponent of restorative practices, says that zero tolerance has been abused, being applied to kids for minor offenses.

    “You could have flipped off the principal, and so the response has been the kid is expelled from school, and when you’re expelled from school it means you may not attend another Michigan-funded school for another 180 days.”

    She says zero tolerance has, inadvertently, beefed up the juvenile justice population in Michigan and Detroit: “It’s not by intention, but if a kid is 15 and out of school, what is he going to do?”

    Alternatively, changes can be dramatic when restorative practices are used. Evans tells the story of an elderly substitute teacher being subjected to harsh and disrespectful behavior. The students who had been doing restorative practices stopped the tyranny in the classroom and asked the other students to consider if the sub was hurting them.

    The rudeness stopped and the students completed their poetry assignment — and enjoyed it.

    “These same kids that stopped the harassment would have been the instigators,” says Evans. “Now, they were saying to their peers that the teacher was being positive, and they needed to listen.”

    Evans calls her restorative practices circles the Invested Youth Society of Dividends because she doesn’t like negative terms like “at-risk.” Also, “a lot of our most risky investments give us the best returns,” says Evans.

    Restorative practices is a way to encourage those healthy returns while slowing the dropout-to-prison pipeline.

    As progress, Thompson points to the Michigan Board of Education’s resolution last summer asking schools to review their zero tolerance policies and to consider restorative practices, positive behavior support, and peer mediation as alternatives to suspension and expulsion.

    “And so we’re making some very, very small gains,” says Thompson. “But it always takes time to be able to change a system of behavior, like zero tolerance.”

    Reaching the entire community

    McClendon and Thomp­son are working with others to influence larger systems — schools, the police department, the juvenile justice system — to adopt the restorative practices culture, taking a robust approach with the idea of turning Detroit into a restorative practice community.

    “We’re doing some heavy lifting, trying to bring restorative practices to scale as a way to communicate, to problem solve, to go through the process of correcting harm, or acknowledging harm and restoring that,” says Thompson, who has 70 staff members trained in restorative practices.

    She also employs a restorative practices manager to provide inexpensive training to schools and community groups. She wants to see restorative practices training be accessible to any group that’s interested.

    A local restorative practices steering committee of executives from Black Family Development, The Skillman Foundation, YouthVille Detroit, Detroit Parent Network, Cody Rouge Community Alliance, Wayne County Sheriff’s Department, Detroit Police Department, the YMCA, and many more are working toward some lofty goals.

    The committee wants to guide the implementation of a restorative practices city, develop a strategic plan to infuse restorative practices into the six Skillman Foundation Good Neighborhoods, and review ongoing data on high crime and conflict areas to put strategy to the geographic areas most in need.

    As more leaders espouse the benefits of restorative practices to create a more cohesive culture, help rebuild and repair Detroit, and put the city on a path toward a more peaceful future, it makes sense for the process to start with our kids.

    Editor’s Note: If you are interested in learning more about Restorative Practices, contact mboyce@blackfamilydevelopment.org. This story was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Michigan Night Light.  

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