The fight between the two Baltimore fourth graders — a boy and a girl — started with a crude text message the boy sent about the girl’s parents. Before long, the spat escalated into homeroom, with the girl saying the boy lived with bedbugs and cockroaches.
Pulled from class, the two kids attempted to resolve their dispute with a conflict resolution technique called a “restorative circle,” where they try to talk through the disagreement.
“What happened?” asked Todd Wade, the school’s restorative practices director, from the head of a long conference table. Following a brief, tense discussion, the boy stormed off in frustration.
“I said what I said,” the girl said through tears.
“I can see you’re very hurt,” Wade responded.
Restorative circles, a commonly used technique at City Springs Elementary/Middle School, convenes feuding parties in a circle or around a table using open-ended, non-judgmental questions and a solutions-based mindset to resolve disputes. What do you think happened? What do you need in order to move forward? How can you avoid conflict in the future?
It’s one tool under the restorative practices umbrella, a philosophy with Indigenous roots used to solve problems through a lens of compassion, empathy and understanding rather than with suspensions and other punitive measures. More schools are adopting the technique. But while some would like to see the method expand even more, critics contend it’s difficult to implement and too soft on kids. In schools where it has worked, the practices are implemented daily, not as a response to an occasional flare-up.
For the latest in our reader-inspired series, Better Baltimore, we look at the restorative school model, the momentum behind the movement and why some advocates think it’s the best use of their energies.
City Springs principal Rhonda Richetta introduced the approach at the start of her tenure 16 years ago, and the Baltimore charter school is now considered a model in the state. All staff members, from the front office to the cafeteria, have been trained. And Richetta said school climate and some metrics of student performance have improved.
Suspensions have dropped to below 40 a year since 2008, a year after implementation, with one exception.
Encouraged by City Springs’ results and the trajectories of other like-minded schools, a small group of Maryland education advocates have joined forces to advocate for all 1,400 public schools in the state to fund at least one restorative practice director position. The cohort, called Restorative Schools Maryland, hopes to go before state lawmakers next year.
But in a state with plunging test scores, spikes in youth violence and an ongoing teacher shortage, some might argue that such funding might be better spent elsewhere.
‘We listen to them’
The school day starts at City Springs with upbeat music, fist-bumps and hugs from Richetta and other staff at the schoolhouse entrance. Later, at an assembly, Richetta invites kids onto the stage to share what they appreciate about their teachers and “good news” updates about their lives.
It’s a deliberate mechanism to counteract what Richetta saw when she started as principal: too many kids showing up to school angry.
“We want students to know that they have a voice, that their voice matters, and that they’re important, they’re special,” she said. “And we listen to them.”
It took a few years and some staff departures among those who did not take to the new approach, but Richetta said the school’s culture eventually shifted.
“I started having an influence over students, and students were starting to respect me and respond to me, because they knew that when they came to my office, that I was going to listen to them. And whatever happened, it was going to be fair,” Richetta said.
Now, so much about Richetta’s school has changed. Enrollment has plunged as more families relocate to make way for the adjacent redevelopment of Perkins Homes. Violence is killing more young people, including 13-year-old Kelsey Washington, a friend to several City Springs students, late last year. And the coronavirus pandemic wiped out years of attendance gains.
The proliferation of smartphones and social media also has become foundational to so many of the kids’ conflicts, Richetta said. But the school’s restorative approach has remained constant, she said, and kids are better off for it.
“I feel like that really is the best way to resolve these types of issues: to get everybody in the room and talk about what they said in the chat — why they said it, and how it made other people feel,” Richetta said.
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To be clear, Richetta said, restorative practices do not eliminate suspensions, detentions or other punishments. Some infractions may still require long-term suspensions. But, she said, a vast majority can be quashed through less punitive ways.
A 2018 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University examined 14 restorative schools in the city and found that those schools decreased suspensions by 44% over one year. A majority of school staff reported that restorative practices had at least somewhat improved school climate and strengthened the relationships among and between students and staff.
Researchers and education experts say suspensions may be necessary at times, but are disproportionately doled out to students of color or those with disabilities. The “zero tolerance” policies of years’ past alienated kids from schools, they argue, and set them up for failure later.
Many are hopeful that instilling restorative practices into young kids will reduce violence among them as they grow. Teens in Baltimore are being shot in record numbers, a Baltimore Banner data analysis shows, many near schools.
“From a public health perspective, this is definitely a violence intervention strategy, but I would also describe this as one of the best ways to conduct pedagogy, strengthen engagement and community building,” said Karen Webber, a former Baltimore principal and current director of education and youth development at Open Society Foundations.
The foundation has given three years worth of seed money to Restorative Schools Maryland. Webber said her own experience as an educator helped color her opinion on ensuring the model is implemented correctly with a year-round, whole-school approach.
“Even though I was a restorative practitioner, I didn’t have funding at my school, and without the right environment for students and teachers, you have suboptimal results,” Webber said. “If leadership doesn’t agree with restorative practices, like it, or participate in it, it won’t work.”
David Hornbeck, co-founder of Restorative Schools Maryland and a former state schools superintendent, said while several schools in the city and state may consider themselves restorative in nature, only a handful have full-time coordinators. Some assign the role to teachers or department heads with other responsibilities, while others might rely on their school district’s central office staff for extra support.
“That’s a fireman’s response to a fire; that’s not culture-changing,” Hornbeck said.
Even if Restorative Schools Maryland succeeds, there are other roadblocks that could set schools back as they adopt restorative methods.
Survey respondents in the Hopkins study most frequently cited a lack of family support as a challenge. And even some supporters of the practice have questions about its effectiveness.
“Adults are not going to be with them all the time, and restorative justice is as good as the team of adults who lead it,” said Annette C. Anderson, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and a city schools alumnus. “If you have a restorative circle, but you have a parent there who doesn’t want to be, how does that play out?”
Survey respondents also cited insufficient training, student resistance, lack of staff buy-in, time constraints and insufficient funding and administrative support as hurdles. And nationally, some school districts are resistant to using a method that ultimately requires more resources and at least a few years to work.
“Districts don’t normally want to take that long,” said Hilary A. Lustick, assistant professor in the school of education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and a restorative practices researcher. “And whether you see changes at all will depend on what restorative practices look like and what that means. There’s so much variation, so it can depend.”
For example, while a 2019 state bill requires every school to take a restorative approach to discipline, each local school district is still responsible for implementing it, said Jena Frick, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Department of Education.
From school to school, implementation varies. At City Springs, Wade leads a team of four other coordinators that help triage and manage disputes.
At his last job at Overlea High School in Baltimore County, Wade at one point taught Spanish, chaired the world languages department and led restorative practices. “Not sustainable,” he recalled. Eventually he became the sole full-time restorative practice director there for about 1,300 students.
A day after the two fourth graders attempted the restorative circle at City Springs, Wade bustled around the building, high-fiving and hugging students in the halls. Many asked to have lunch with him, something they view as a special privilege. Others ask for time to talk and walk on the track outside.
The other restorative practices coordinators command a similar draw. One, Nyjah Rollins, put it this way: “It’s because we listen to them.”
Mid-morning, Wade tries another restorative circle with the two fourth graders. Both children apologize. Wade thinks repetition, time to cool off and a nudge from the kids’ basketball coach, a trusted adult, helped them reach resolution.
He celebrates the small victory, but before long, Wade and the team are dealing with another crisis: Two students, third graders, had a fight turn physical. Rollins and coordinator Stanley Berry bring them downstairs and attempt a circle, but a fight breaks out between them again, and the two are restrained.
Within a few minutes, the coordinators decide to call the parents in for another restorative circle. Wade said some parents are critical of the practice, especially when they’re summoned multiple times to participate. He tells them it’s important to try anyway.
“It’s just super important for these kids to see another way,” Wade said. “Because when they’re 17, it could be fatal.”