This is our first installment in an occasional series, “As They Grow: Tracking Change for the Next Generation.”
Teacher Jackie Johnson tells a class of 20 sixth-graders to “circle up.” They stand facing each other. They clear away desk chairs and gather in the back of the room for a few minutes. This is something these students at Deer Park Middle Magnet School in Randallstown do every day.
On this day, they are asked to talk about something they are proud of or something that’s positive. Maya Williams offered up that she’s proud of her uncle, who’s serving in Iraq.
“So, it’s hard to see him, but we can talk to him,” Maya said.
Sanyia Turner’s contribution to the circle is about school.
“Something positive is getting good grades and not skipping class,” Sanyia said.
After the circle is over, J’lin Brown said the circle keeps you guessing because you never know what your classmates are going to say.
“It makes you want to say more positive stuff about the class,” J’lin said. “It helps us with our day, makes us have a good mood for the day.”
Brown and his classmates are in Jennifer Battista’s Reading Foundations class. Battista co-teaches the class with Johnson, who is a special educator. Battista said she introduced the circles at the beginning of the school year. Battista said she has little trouble with discipline in her class and she credits the circles for much of that.
“They’ve formed these really nice relationships that when somebody says something, if they’re hurt or they’re upset, if somebody’s passed or somebody’s sick, they’ll go huddle around the person and they say they’re sorry for their loss," Battista said. "It’s turned into a little family.”
This technique is called restorative practices. It originated in the 1970s and was used to try to settle cases in the juvenile justice system. Since then, it has evolved and moved into the classroom.
Battista is trying to build these relationships so discipline doesn’t become a problem. But the Baltimore County schools also are using the circles in cases where there has been trouble.
The school system is grappling with increased suspensions and complaints about lack of discipline in the classrooms. Some teachers are trying restorative practices. They hope the technique will make schools safer and reduce the number of students getting kicked out.
There may have been "a yelling disagreement or a fight," explained Kandice Taylor, the principal at Deer Park Middle. "But there is a lot more things that happened leading up to that that caused that event.”
The student who caused the problem is put in a circle with the victim and others who were affected. Offenders are asked tough questions such as, “What were you thinking about at the time?” and “What do you think you need to do to make things right?” The victim is asked, "How has this affected you and others?” and “What needs to be done to square things with the offender?”
“In that circle, we all can have our say," said Taylor. "It’s not, one person’s in front, one person’s behind. No, we are all able to sit and look at each other equally.”
And it can be helpful to the teacher who sends a student to the office for misbehaving, then finds out through a circle why it happened.
Going to a circle doesn’t mean an offender gets a pass on punishment. Melissa Lembo Whisted, the executive director of the county schools’ curriculum and instruction department, said they’re not saying consequences aren’t appropriate.
“They certainly are appropriate,” Whisted said. “We want logical consequences and we want to understand the reasons why the behaviors were happening.”
And, Whisted said, find ways to keep the behaviors from happening again.
Taylor said there are some offenses like hitting a teacher or bringing drugs or weapons to school that automatically lead to suspensions. But Taylor said the circles help some students who committed less serious acts that, in the past, might have led to suspensions, stay in school.
“It really falls back into our academics, because if they’re not in the seat, they’re not learning” Taylor said. “So, trying to keep our children in the building while maintaining a safe climate with 1,300 children is what we’re trying to do.”
This comes at a time the Baltimore County School Board has been hearing a lot about schools with unsafe climates. A recent survey done by the school system shows that only around 70 percent of middle and high schoolers feel safe at school. Interim School Superintendent Verletta White has created an office to monitor climate in the classroom.
White said, “We don’t believe we have a rampant or overall problem in our school system. The data doesn’t suggest that. The data suggests we have pockets we need to pay attention to.”
One of those pockets was detailed at last week’s school board meeting by Abby Beytin, the president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, the teachers union. Beytin told the board that at one school, she wouldn’t say which one, five adults have been hurt including one who remains out with a concussion.
“We understand that suspensions are not the best answer,” Beytin said. “However, if a student who exhibits chronic misbehavior is not removed from the classroom, the other children in the class miss out on their educations.”
There were nearly 9,800 suspensions in Baltimore County schools last year, an increase over the year before.
Beytin said what schools need are smaller class sizes and more support staff, such as counselors, psychologists and special education teachers. Beytin supports restorative practices as long as they’re done right.
“Restorative practices offers real promise, but if they are implemented in haste, without the proper foundation, they, too, will fail,” Beytin said.
Whisted said a majority of Baltimore County schools are implementing restorative practices in some form. Some schools have received formal training provided by the county. Others have been doing it on their own. Whisted says it’s not for everybody. Some teachers will want to do it; others won’t. But, she added, that doesn’t mean it won’t work, as long as a student has a port in the storm, somewhere in a school, to go.
“You can manage through those harder personalities that you have to interact with if you know there is a time in the day where, ‘Someone’s going to understand me,’ and ‘Someone’s going to cut me some slack because I’ve had a hard day,’” Whisted said.
Interim Superintendent White said research shows the restorative practices approach can work.
“And whenever we’re investing in character building and character education, then we don’t believe we can go wrong,” White said.
White has two children in the county school system. She said she does not send them to school to get hurt.
Education reporting on WYPR is supported in part by the Sylvan-Laureate Foundation.