‘Restorative Justice’ aims for equity at Portland schools

Multnomah County

Alternative discipline model adopted by PPS shows promise

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Woodmere Elementary School in Southeast Portland is one of the dozens of schools in Portland Public Schools attempting a culture change in its approach to disciplining students — an issue that the school district has struggled with in terms of disproportionately affecting students of color and low-income students.

This is being done through school administrators and teachers adopting a philosophical approach called “restorative justice,” which puts a focus on building healthy relationships–between students, teachers, parents and others, to help students thrive. That’s counter to taking a punitive approach, according to PPS Restorative Justice Program Manager Charnetta Hutson.

“Punitive says I have to rush to a consequence. There was a harm that has happened…and so we usually suspend the student and get him out of the environment,” she said.

With restorative justice, Hutson explained that the person who caused the harm and the person who has been harmed are put in the same environment to work on what can be done to remedy the situation.

“When we rush them or move them to a consequence, we take that experience that a student needs in maturing and growing, and being responsible for their behavior, we’re taking that away from them,” Hutson said.

But the restorative justice practices, as they’re called, are not only done in reaction to conflicts, at schools like Woodmere and others, they’re embedded into the daily routine of the school itself.

In Emily Kinney’s fifth grade class, that takes the shape of regularly holding “community building circles,” in which students share their thoughts and feelings–about how confident they are to pay attention in class that day, for instance — and why they feel that way.

“Today my ‘attention gas tank’ is 100 percent full because nothing really bad has happened,” shares a student holding a squishy blue ball that signifies it’s his turn to talk.

Sarah Holm is the restorative justice specialist who works at Portland Public Schools supporting many of the district’s schools, from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Students participate in a ‘community building circle,’ which is a restorative justice practice taught in fifth grade elementary teacher Emily Kinney’s class at Woodmere Elementary in Southeast Portland, one of 23 restorative justice focus schools at Portland Public Schools October 10, 2019 (KOIN/Danny Peterson).

As one of 23 restorative justice-focused schools in PPS, Woodmere receives support from Holm every other week in the form of training and facilitating restorative justice practices.

For instance, Holm helped Kinney adapt her routine circle group time to embed restorative justice practices within them, Kinney explained.

Hutson and Holm make up half of the Restorative Justice Specialists working directly for PPS, with Hutson focusing on the high schools. That’s a change from when the program was first implemented six years ago, in which the district contracted with Resolution Northwest to manage the program with their own specialists. Now restorative justice is implemented as a support to the Multi-Tierd System of Supports department of the district.

Hopes are high among the specialists that the practices will result in a reversal of disproportionate discipline for kids of color and low-income students, an issue pointed to as a persistent problem of PPS, according to an Oregon Secretary of State Audit from January.

Some initial findings about restorative justice practices point to many potential positives, including reduced suspension rates of African American students and those from low-income families. That’s according to a 2019 RAND Corporation randomized study that examined schools that used restorative justice practices in Pittsburgh versus non-restorative justice schools, over a two year period.

That same study also found the overall average suspension rate was reduced, and that school climates improved overall, according to teacher ratings.

Other school districts implementing restorative justice practices have found similar outcomes, such as Cole Middle School in Oakland, Calif., experiencing an 87-percent drop in suspensions across the first two years of implementation, compared to the prior three years, and expulsions being eliminated entirely after restorative justice was put in place. That’s according to a 2019 study by WestEd Justice and Prevention Research Center.

One negative of the RAND study was that academic outcomes did not improve in the restorative justice-implemented schools, and actually worsened for grades 6-8, particularly for African American kids.

When asked her reaction to that negative spot in the study, Hutson, who was familiar with it, pointed out that those outcomes occurred at predominately African American schools, “but not for schools that had some diversity.”

“This lead me to believe that lack of resources, lack of teacher support, and possibly lack of professional development might had played a part in the negative outcomes.”

Hutson also pointed out that the RAND study was only for two years, while it is generally accepted in the restorative practices community that it takes three to five years to implement restorative practices.

Nevertheless, the study noted in its summary that it found restorative justice practices overall to “be promising, particularly in elementary schools.”

For Hutson, she’s found the philosophy of restorative justice, which has roots in criminal justice reform, to permeate into every facet of her life. That includes how she handles disciplining her own kids.

Holm agrees it’s a set of values that’s hard not take home with you at the end of the day.

“Restorative justice becomes embedded in who you are as a human, like Char was saying, it’s in your families, it’s in every aspect of you. And then it’s partnered with the equity work that you’re doing as a teacher to make sure that you’re creating equitable spaces for all students to succeed.”

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