Vashon schools implement new restorative justice discipline program

With revised discipline policies, administrators at all three of Vashon's public schools are changing the way they discipline students by focusing on having conversations and rebuilding relationships.

With revised discipline policies, administrators at all three of Vashon’s public schools are changing the way they discipline students by focusing on having conversations and rebuilding relationships.

Called restorative justice, the discipline program calls for disciplinary action to move away from suspension and expulsion for non-physical and non-threatening interactions toward approaches that allow students to continue to be engaged while being disciplined. However, Vashon High School principal Danny Rock said that conventional suspension and expulsion will still be implemented for serious, physical infractions.

“Restorative justice understands these interactions as a harm to the community when someone violates the agreement (of how to behave),” he said. “This doesn’t change the fact that suspension (will be used) for anything that is a threat.”

He said that he thinks discipline should serve two purposes, as a learning experience and as a way to maintain safety and order. He said he believes restorative justice addresses both, but focuses more on the learning experience portion, which is more relevant to Vashon students.

“The use of discipline as a way to maintain safety and order is the less frequent use,” he said. “It doesn’t match up with the context of this school and district. The lens of discipline needs to be appropriate to the community.”

The new discipline policies outline five different levels of discipline from the lowest level being a conversation to the highest level resulting in expulsion.

“We basically shifted the consequences out of short-term suspension to a level down,” Rock said. “The intent is to give students a choice between the restorative process and conventional discipline practices.”

This necessity of choice is important, as Rock said the restorative justice process requires authenticity and sincerity from the student, as well as a need for the student to take responsibility for his or her actions.

“It can’t be forced,” he said. “We’re going to try and have students see the value of the restorative process, but we can’t make someone feel bad. It will be a culture shift that will take time.”

After more than six months of work to rewrite the district policies, reviewing the policies of other school districts that use this discipline model and attending restorative justice conferences and trainings, the high school started employing some restorative justice strategies last spring.

“It was nothing too dramatic, but we used our authority as administrators about the discretion of the consequences,” Rock said.

Meanwhile, at Chautauqua Elementary School, principal Rebecca Goertzel agreed with Rock and said that the new discipline approach will give teachers and administrators more ability to problem-solve.

“It’s giving administrators the ability to not simply say, ‘This is what you’ve done, here’s the consequence,’ but ask, ‘How do we help restore peace and friendship and collaboration when something goes wrong?” she said.

Goertzel said that restorative justice is a form of preventative discipline that can help foster a more interactive school culture and compliments what Chautauqua has been doing with its positive behavior intervention and strategies (PBIS) that focus on respect and responsibility.

McMurray Middle School principal Greg Allison, who worked closely with Vashon Island School District Superintendent Michael Soltman to re-write the district’s discipline policies, said that the decision to implement restorative justice practices came after reading about school districts in Oakland and San Francisco and schools in Seattle that have started the program.

“It’s not that we’re lowering expectations; it’s about purely punishment versus discipline, which is rooted in teaching the behavior that you want students to exude,” he said.

He agreed with Goertzel that the program is a supplement to what is already being done through PBIS, which rewards good behavior and attempts to proactively discipline negative behavior.

“It’s the next logical step in the PBIS program. Connecting it back to our mission, we want to teach our students skills that will be useful in life, and relating to one another is one of those,” Allison said.

He said that the new program will be implemented and tweaked over several years to meet the needs that arise.

“It’s certainly something we’re not going to master right away,” Allison said. “It will take time. I think that at each level it will be different, but it will fit well.”

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