Last month, a group of students from the 100% College Prep Club in the Bayview district marched into the San Francisco Unified School District board meeting. They were protesting suspensions for “willful defiance” – a vague term that in practice can encompass everything from talking back to a teacher to wearing a hat indoors. About a quarter of all suspensions in the SFUSD were for “disruption or defiance” last school year, and “willful defiance” infractions are the cause of 53% of suspensions statewide. AB 420, a state bill to limit these kinds of suspensions has made it through the Assembly, but has not yet been signed by the Governor.
But the district has already made changes. In 2009 the school board dissolved what was then called the “Discipline Task Force” in favor of a new “Restorative Justice and School Climate Task Force.” It also made an official district-wide shift to the use of Restorative Practices. Now, students as young as kindergartners are learning the philosophy and techniques.
Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, an elementary school in the Castro district, has wholeheartedly adopted the new scheme. As you might imagine from the name, its curriculum puts an emphasis on social justice.
Mornings at Harvey Milk begin with the whole school gathered in a circle in the yard. This morning, teacher Leanne Francis stands in the middle holding a microphone, and introduces the theme for November: “Stand up for Peace and Safety”. She asks if any students want to share thoughts on the topic.
One little girl steps up to the mic. “My name is Emily,” she says, “and I think peace and safety means that hands are for hugging, not pushing or shoving.”
A few other students speak, then it’s on to announcements and the school cheer before heading off to class.
In addition to the whole-school circle in the morning, each class has its own daily community circle. Every classroom has a carpeted area where students and teachers sit on the floor to share their thoughts or feelings. In Marisa Martinez’s 3rd grade class, students pass a small stuffed panda around the circle, to mark who has the floor. Today they’re talking about people or animals that have passed on.
A boy in a hooded sweatshirt says, “One person who I would like to celebrate is my grandmother – my mom’s mom. She passed away last year, and I want to celebrate her. She was really nice to me.”
Another boy says he wants to remember his pet rat, Pumpkin, “because he was really smart and he learned how to jump up and open doors when they were locked.”
The kids listen quietly to each other, giving silent thumbs up when they agree with someone’s statement. Sometimes giggles break out, but they seem remarkably calm for third-graders.
Harvey Milk’s principal Tracy Peoples is visiting the class today. She also holds the panda as she speaks of her mom’s death two years ago.
“I want to celebrate her,” she says, “because she taught me so many things, and I also miss having conversations with her. I used to talk to her every morning on my way to work.”
Peoples first learned about Restorative Practices at her previous post, a high school in the district called International Studies Academy that was beginning to implement some of the techniques. She says in the two years she was there, she saw changes.
“There was evidence to show that the referrals went down,” she says. “The suspension rate went down.”
Although the shift to Restorative Practices is supposed to be district-wide, its actual implementation has, so far, depended a lot on individual schools’ willingness and interest. When Principal Peoples came to Harvey Milk two years ago, she introduced some of the techniques she had learned. She offered the free, district-sponsored training to her teachers on a voluntary basis, but there weren’t a lot of volunteers at first.
She laughs as she recalls that only one out of her 11 teachers took the training. “There were a few that were skeptical, and didn’t believe that it was working,” she says. “They were stuck in a traditional mode of punishment, punishment, punishment.”
Traditional discipline strategies are punitive: things like losing recess, sitting alone in the corner, or getting sent to the principal’s office, usually without a conversation.
“That’s not what our students need, that’s not even human, really and truly,” says Peoples. “It’s not because a child wakes up in the morning and says, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna be bad, and today I’m just gonna really act bad and upset my teacher.’ It’s something underneath that.”
She says it’s not that kids don’t have consequences for their actions, but that with Restorative Practices, the consequences can be logical and appropriate to the offense.
“So if a kid is throwing paper, we’re not going to sit him on the bench,” she explains. “He’s going to pick up paper. That’s logical, right? And then he’s going to hear conversations around why throwing papers on the floor is something that’s not appropriate, and how it’s impacting everyone else in the environment and in that classroom.”
An incident in Kelly Clark’s fifth grade class today, for example, leads not to punishment, but to a moment of reflection on how one’s actions affect others. The class gathers in a circle.
“Sometimes,” Ms. Clark says, “when a person exposes themselves and are feeling vulnerable and you laugh, you may not be laughing at them, but it feels that way. And it’s particularly rattling at this age group. Who understands what I’m talking about?”
Most of the kids raise their hands. Then Ms. Clark takes them through a quick breathing exercise before moving on to a lesson on civics.
Punishment is Ineffective
“Punishing is not an effective response to changing behaviors,” says
Kerri Berkowitz, the district’s program administrator for Restorative Practices. She says she gets pushback from teachers who feel it’s too “soft” an approach to behavior issues, and that kids need more discipline.
“I feel like we almost need to reclaim that word: discipline,” Berkowitz says, “to move it more toward learning. Learning about one’s actions.”
She points out that traditional kinds of discipline have not actually worked, in terms of keeping every child in class and learning. High rates of suspensions have long been a concern of the district. And they’re disproportionate for African American, Latino, and Pacific Islander students.
Berkowitz says the district is aware of research that “very clearly shows how our implicit biases and stereotypes impact how we relate to one another, and to our students.”
So at Harvey Milk, teachers sometimes have what they call “courageous conversations”, where they try to lay bare their feelings. It could be a time that another adult offended them, or a time they had a conflict with a student of another race, class or culture. The aim is to create an atmosphere where everyone, child and adult alike, can feel safe.
Berkowitz says she knows there are critics who think this kind of thing is too touchy-feely, or may overstep the boundaries of a school’s role or responsibility. But she says the district believes Restorative Practices is actually directly related to learning.
“If students are not feeling safe in their classrooms,” she says, “if they’re not feeling the teacher likes them or cares about them, if they’re not feeling a sense of belonging and feeling like they have a voice and can be heard in their classroom, it’s going to be so much more challenging for them to learn.”
Brown Burmeister, a second grader at Harvey Milk, says she likes expressing herself in the community circles.
“It feels good to let everybody know what I’m feeling like and all,” she says. “They listen, and they’re like treating me nice when they listen, so I know that they can feel what I feel sometimes.”
Principal Peoples says it’s important to lay this foundation early, so students grow up knowing and living the principles of Restorative Practices. “Therefore, once they’re in high school, the other pressures that they are dealing with, they have a different approach, they have strategies in dealing with it.”