Middle school sees success with new disciplinary system

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published January 22, 2014


ROSEVILLE — Discipline is an issue for all school districts, and Roseville Middle School has been at the cutting edge of a new way of handling student issues without resorting directly to detentions, suspensions and expulsions.

Dubbed “restorative justice,” the methodology is designed to help students understand the consequences of their actions among their peers and the broader community, according to Principal David Rice.

“What we were noticing, when I first came here about four years ago now, is that the traditional discipline and suspensions — being kicked out of class and expulsions — were extremely high for our school population,” Rice said. “We were looking at the whys and what is this, beyond ‘students are bad.’”

The new system does not outright replace traditional disciplinary measures, he said, but it is a new first option that has shown itself to be more effective much of the time. In it, students — or staff — who are having issues can meet face-to-face in a peace circle with a mediator and an aide to talk about the issues.

The circles consist of up to five people and provide a chance to resolve problems in a positive way.

For more troublesome incidents, Rice said the parents and other family members may be asked to come and get involved, as well, to show kids how wide-ranging the impact of their behavior can be.

“We still have traditional discipline in place, but we kind of see that it is temporary compliance,” Rice said. “That’s what traditional discipline does. You did something wrong, we suspend you and all you know is you were out of school. You didn’t learn anything about it; you didn’t care.”

“It’s different from sitting someone down in a restorative conference, as not only are you seeing how you affected not only the kid who was bullied, but how it affects their parents. The teachers and principal could be sitting in, and they can talk about how it affects them. Lot of times, tears are going on; it’s a very emotional thing,” he added, noting that for most kids, it is harder to face their victims rather than just take the suspension.

Rice said the data has shown a positive impact during the period the program has been in place — since about two years ago. In the 2010-11 school year, the middle school saw 12 students expelled, but in the 2012-13 school year, the first full year the program was in effect, expulsions had fallen to seven. Only one student has been expelled since September, Rice said.

Looking at the school year in trimesters, Rice said that the number of office referrals have dropped from 1,133 at this time last year to 551 this year.

“I feel it’s working out very well,” Rice said. “I was a proponent of zero-tolerance, as I was an assistant principal at the high school for nine years, and when I came here as principal, I was a believer of ‘get these kids out of your class, so other kids can learn.’ Since this was introduced to me, I’ve really turned around.”

He said the idea came from Bill Sower, of the Christopher and Virginia Sower Center for Successful Schools. Restorative justice has been used in Australia and at Michigan State University, Rice said, adding that Roseville Middle School is one of the first public schools in the state to use the method.

“Anyone who has dealt with restorative justice in the state has told us from the outside that we’re on the cutting edge of this, that we’re out front and that they haven’t really seen it run better in the state than what we’re doing right now,” he said.

Representatives from other districts around the state have visited the middle school to see how the program runs, and Rice said the staff has done presentations about it to the Michigan Department of Education and the Engineering Society of Detroit. The MDE is looking at it as something it could implement statewide, he said.

Assistant Principal Jason Bettin, who oversees the program, said not only has it led to a decline in “minor discipline problems,” but that students have been actively seeking out peace-circle meetings as a way to resolve issues in a way that they could not otherwise.

“We want to have a firm consequence, but also to get them to stay in school and understand how their actions are affecting people,” Bettin said.

Additionally, teachers who previously would simply have to send students out of the classroom for misbehavior for the duration of the lesson now have an option that can get the student back in, Bettin said. A teacher can send a student to the mediator and aide to talk about why the student was misbehaving and the consequences before returning to class in about 10 minutes.

“Now, if someone starts acting out, the teacher just needs to get them refocused so they can continue with their lesson,” Bettin said. “When you have a classroom with 30-35 students, you can’t take five minutes to step out and have that conversation, so this is someplace the teacher can send students to have that five-minute conversation. Then, they can go back to the room, have a quick follow-up 30-second conversation, and get back to class and learning.”

Bettin said the process has proven helpful for chronically troublesome students, as the school has had a significant reduction in the number of referrals for those kids.

Rice said the system has been helpful for dealing with bullying, in particular, as victims get an opportunity to confront their aggressors and have a voice. It has been a big change, however: one that required professional development days by the staff.

“We don’t call it a program, because it really had to be a culture change, a change in how students think about discipline, and a change in how administrators and teachers think about discipline,” Rice said. “We needed to think of another way to talk with kids that wasn’t ‘we’re always right, you’re always wrong.’ It had to be a conversation.”