When Jessika Quinn started as a freshman at Manual High School, student fights were so common that she grew accustomed to the sound of hall monitors and security guards rushing to intervene, she said.
For two years, she often heard classmates recounting violent clashes they’d seen between classes.
But the disruption and distraction for students wasn’t the school’s only problem. All that fighting came with another cost — Manual had a strikingly high suspension rate. The school, which enrolled just 550 students in the 2014-2015 school year, tallied 850 suspensions that year.
“There were fights all the time. People (were) getting expelled, suspended for so long,” said Quinn, who is now a senior at the school. “It was crazy.”
But over the past year, Manual has gotten calmer, according to Quinn, other students and staff. There’s less fighting, and suspension rates have fallen steeply; last year, there were just 343 suspensions.
Also down is the number of students who’ve faced repeated suspensions. While 71 students had four or more suspensions two years ago, last year, the number of students with that many suspensions dropped to 12.
For David Hernandez, the dean in charge of discipline, the difference is palpable.
“It is so quiet back here some days,” he has little to do, he said. “Whenever something happens, we have it under control and everything is back to normal within 20 minutes.”
Staff and students say the school is better because leaders last fall embraced an approach to student discipline called restorative justice. Instead of relying on punitive punishments, such as suspensions, the new approach, which has gained prominence in schools across the country, focuses on helping students find healthy ways to deal with conflict and repair the damage they’ve caused.
The idea is that students will learn to manage conflict and stop getting into trouble.
Manual’s move toward restorative justice is part of a national trend, as schools strive to reduce suspension rates. School districts in Denver, Oakland and Pittsburgh are using the approach in many schools. In Indianapolis, the state’s largest school district has also encouraged schools to use the model to reduce suspensions.
It’s not always easy to shift the culture of schools, said Anne Gregory, a researcher at Rutgers University who studies school discipline and restorative justice.
“We have a deeply ingrained sense of the need for punishment,” she said.
At many schools using restorative justice, leaders start by training teachers. Educators are then expected to use the method to run their classroom and to resolve conflict.
Some schools don’t bring students into the process until fairly late in the game, but at Manuel, the school brought students in from the start.
Hernandez, who is in his third year as dean at Manual, worked with 10 staffers on the discipline and safety team to plan for restorative justice. Instead of looking to transform classroom culture, they focused on discipline in the first year and getting students involved in the process. They held several assemblies with students where they explained how it would work, and they created a peer jury with nearly two dozen teens.
The volunteers on the peer jury help resolve serious conflicts by leading peace circles where students who are having problems talk about what happened, what they could’ve done differently and what they can do to repair any damage created by their actions.
“Any kid can identify with another kid easier than with an adult,” Hernandez said.
The students on the jury also play another important role: They’ve become ambassadors for restorative justice throughout the school, explaining how it works and encouraging students to avoid fights.
Quinn is one of the teen volunteers, and like most of the jury members, she’s had problems in school in the past, including suspensions. As a member of the jury, she said she can use her experience to connect with other students.
Earlier this year, she helped mediate a peace circle with three girls who were arguing — the kind of gossip that causes a lot of problems in high school. The circle allowed the girls to talk about the issue with neutral students, including Quinn, so they could resolve their dispute. Since then, Quinn said, she’s checked in every day with one of the girls involved in the fight.
“We pass each other in the hallway. We share smiles or we wave,” Quinn said. “I’ll be like, ‘Are you doing OK today?’ … just to let her know that I’m still there if she ever needs to talk.”
One reason schools across the country are aiming to reduce suspensions is because Black children and children with disabilities are much more likely to be suspended than their peers. Hernandez said that’s not a significant issue at Manual, and suspension rates reflect the demographics of the school. (State data suggests there is a gap, with Black students making up about 19 percent of enrollment and 26 percent of the students suspended.)
But Manual, which was taken over by the state in 2012 after years of low test scores and is managed by Charter Schools USA, had alarmingly high suspension rates for all student groups, Hernandez said.
Back then, Hernandez said the school’s high suspension rate was due in part to a zero-tolerance policy for some student infractions. When students did something wrong, teachers would send them to the office, and Hernandez would dole out punishment. Sometimes, he would suspend five students or more in a day.
Now, with restorative justice, teens get many chances to make amends for their actions before they face suspension. When students get in fights or cause disruptions in class, they might talk to their teacher, the hall monitor or the behavior interventionist. If each of those meetings fail, they might meet with someone else involved in the conflict or do a peace circle with students from the peer jury.
In some cases, the conversations are enough to resolve the issue. In others, students are asked to do something to repair the damage. For example, a teen who sprays graffiti on the school might help the custodial staff during lunch, Hernandez said.
Suspension is a last resort, he said.
The decline in the number of students with multiple suspensions suggests teens are learning from the discipline process, Gregory said. If restorative justice is working well, students should learn how to resolve conflicts and how their actions impact others, she said.
“The idea is to not just not give them a sanction but to increase learning and relationship building,” she said.
Laura Burpo O’Brien, a Manual staffer who splits her time between teaching and working as a behavior interventionist, said teaching students conflict management skills is one of the most important pieces of restorative justice.
When the school started restorative justice last year, students were nervous about the meetings and peace circles, Burpo O’Brien said. But now teens are more comfortable with it. Sometimes students who are having conflicts with friends even stop by the dean’s office to request restorative chats or peace circles.
“We stress to them, conflict is OK,” she said. “You are going to have conflict in every job. You are going to have conflict in every relationship. But you have to embrace the conflict and figure out appropriately how to deal with that conflict.”