Northampton School Board Gives Nod to Pilot Restorative Justice Program

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By Stefanie Jackson – The Northampton school board voted unanimously Feb. 13 to pilot a restorative discipline program in kindergarten through second grade, but a former school board member questioned whether the decision was informed enough to ensure the program’s success.

Restorative discipline is an alternative to traditional school discipline that shifts administrators’ focus from punishing students with in-school and out-of-school suspensions to giving them logical consequences for their actions and opportunities to make amends.

The unanimous vote was based on the recommendation of a committee headed by Maxine Rasmussen, who also chairs the school board.

“The committee was charged with investigating the possibility of adopting restorative justice discipline guidelines at Northampton public schools,” she said in her report.

Former school board member Nancy Proto, whose term expired in December 2019, later said, “that was not my motion.”

Her June 27, 2019, motion, which passed unanimously, called for a committee “to research restorative discipline practices in other districts” before presenting its recommendation to the school board, according to meeting minutes.

Proto is concerned that the committee did not serve its purpose because it did not report any discussion with other school districts that have implemented restorative discipline practices.

Northampton school board members have discussed on several occasions contacting or meeting public school administrators from Mathews County, a small, rural Virginia county across the Chesapeake Bay, where restorative discipline has been introduced.

Mathews County has roughly 75% of the population of Northampton County and three public schools.

But little has been said about Mathews County since Jan. 24, 2019, when school board member Randy Parks said the board planned to contact the Mathews High School principal.

Rasmussen said committee members received copies of “The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools” and “an article from the internet … to get all the facts.” They were encouraged to conduct additional research on the internet and talk to teachers and community members.

The committee sent a survey to Northampton teachers on restorative discipline and received 49 responses, including 27 with written comments, which indicated “the jury is still out on the effectiveness of this approach,” she said.

“For the community to believe this is the best path to take in managing discipline in our schools, at least two things must occur,” Rasmussen continued.

“The first is that parents and community members must be willing to commit their time, and the second is that they trust us – the school district – to do what is in the students’ best interest.”

“We found that this may or may not be true,” Rasmussen said.

The committee recommended piloting a restorative discipline program in grades K to 2.

It also recommended that the Northampton school board update its discipline policies and align them with PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports), a behavior program that motivates students through rewards and recognition.

Rasmussen added that the committee supports Northampton schools hiring an additional social worker and a behavior therapist.

School board member Charlena Jones said the restorative discipline program should also be piloted in the middle school and high school.

Rasmussen seemed unconvinced. When middle and high school students were informed about the alternative form of discipline, they responded, “Well, we’ll tell you anything you want. We’ll do anything you want. And then we’ll go do what we want,” she said.

Many of middle and high school students’ conflicts start off campus or on social media, she added.

“This is a completely separate issue, and the restorative justice program at the school is not meant to be a solution to community issues.”

School board member Jo Ann Molera thought the lower grades were a good place to start with the program because “eventually it’s going to work its way up.”

She hopes the pilot program will “retrain some brains at those lower grades, and everybody will benefit in the long run.”

Molera would like to see educators reach out to high school students through theatre. She believes students may be less receptive “if they think you’re trying to … con them with a new program,” but theatre is more “subtle.”

Superintendent Eddie Lawrence approved of starting restorative discipline in the lower elementary grades because a Virginia law limits suspensions for students in third grade and below.

In 2018, Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill that prevents schools from suspending children in pre-K through third grade for more than three days at a time. Children in those grades also cannot be expelled except for drug and firearm offenses.

Restorative discipline could be phased in like Northampton’s social-emotional learning program, starting with grades K to 2, followed by the remainder of the elementary schools and the middle and high school, Lawrence said.

He also suggested that some student behavior problems could be curbed through better classroom management.

“In my experience – middle and high school – most referrals, suspensions, what have you, have a root cause in poor instruction,” he said.

“You give kids too much time on their hands not doing anything meaningful, and they start to be mischievous. You give kids assignments that don’t scaffold for them so they can do the work, you have a problem,” Lawrence said.

He acknowledged that the school division relies too heavily on suspensions when disciplining students, yet Northampton schools have not expelled a student in three years.

Other Virginia school divisions like Fairfax may have decreased the number of suspensions issued, but they expel 1% to 2% of their students annually, Lawrence pointed out.

“We’re still having trouble with the little stuff, but we have done a better job with the big stuff, and for that, Northampton County schools should be credited.”

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