When the principal at Alfred Bonnabel Magnet Academy High School in Kenner, Louisiana, provided training for teachers in restorative justice practices, the concept didn’t initially catch on very well, remembers Erin Valls, who leads school climate efforts for the Jefferson Parish Public School System.

But then students in the school’s Climate Club got involved and helped launch the Restorative Center, which works to address student disputes and offending behavior by focusing on repairing harm and restoring relationships, rather than punishing or suspending the students involved. The Center’s peer leaders now have a steady flow of requests to mediate disputes between students and teachers and students and their peers. In many cases, these mediations are helping foster new understandings and break down silos among students and faculty.

“When a student gets a glimpse into the psyche of a teacher, it helps them understand that teachers also have struggles,” says Cameron Rodriguez, an 11th grader at Bonnabel. “It’s not just the student who is going through a hard time.”

Involved with implementing restorative practices at the school since he was a freshman, Rodriguez now trains students across the district to lead restorative circles — facilitated meetings in which students and a teacher come together to solve problems and resolve disciplinary issues.

The Restorative Center is just one positive outcome of Jefferson Parish’s efforts over the last few years to improve student connectedness across the district. As part of a School Climate Transformation Grant, in 2015 Jefferson Parish began working with WestEd’s School Climate and Wellness Partnership, which provides tailored, research-based services to help schools and districts engage their students and move the needle on fostering safe and supportive school environments. WestEd staff started by helping the district collect and examine student survey data on issues such as connectedness and discipline. WestEd brought to Jefferson Parish its decades of experience administering the California Department of Education’s California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS), the largest statewide survey of resiliency, protective factors, risk behaviors, and school climate in the nation. A crucial part of that survey process is making sure administrators, educators, students, and families at the local level have a chance to review their own data so they can better understand areas of strength and areas that need improvement.

When WestEd brought Jefferson Parish administrators together with students to analyze the results of the student surveys, the district realized that, even though it was implementing a relevant system known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, students were not feeling connected and were not getting a chance to provide input into the process of creating schoolwide expectations.

The survey findings, therefore, helped initiate a strong focus on student engagement in the district. “We want to know what students have to say,” Valls says. “They’re the ones that can truly create a more positive school climate.”

Creating schools that “beat the odds”

With the nation focusing more than ever on making sure schools are safe and welcoming places, Jefferson Parish’s efforts demonstrate the importance of listening to what students have to say. A 2013 WestEd study, using CHKS data from 1,700 California middle and high schools, identified 40 schools that were “beating the odds” by consistently performing better than predicted on math and English language arts standardized tests. Those 40 schools had “substantially higher” school climate ratings — scoring in the 82nd percentile — compared to other schools, which were at the 49th percentile, on average.

“That study’s results suggest that a positive school climate can be beneficial for all schools, serving all types of students,” says Jenny Betz, a WestEd School Climate Specialist who has been working closely with Jefferson Parish students and staff. “When students feel safe and cared for at school, the academics are better, the health outcomes are better — it benefits everyone.”

With some states including school climate and student engagement data as part of their state plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act, many districts are looking for strategies to actively engage students in improving school climate. In Jefferson Parish, that process began with student representatives from 13 of the districts’ high schools participating in student listening circles, which Betz describes as “a structured way for students to talk about how they feel at their school and what they think could be improved at the school.” Students responded to questions such as, “How do you know adults in your school care about you?” and, “If you woke up tomorrow and your school was perfect, what would you notice?”

The students followed up with a presentation for the district superintendent, and then Valls worked with the schools to hold the district’s first “youth summit.” It was at that initial gathering that students developed the concept of Climate Clubs. A member of each school’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports team now supports the student-led clubs, reinforcing the district’s commitment to improving the culture of every school.

Since that first event, two summits have been held each year in Jefferson Parish. The fall event focuses on building leadership skills: the teams from each school spend time outlining their plans for the year, usually focusing on making schools more inclusive. The spring summit operates more like a conference, with local speakers — focusing on topics ranging from gender identity to bullying prevention — invited to present.

“We want to know what students have to say — they’re the ones that can truly create a more positive school climate.”

Jefferson Parish’s spring 2018 summit was held on March 14, the same day as a national student walkout to honor the victims killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Some of the students participated in the walkout during the summit. Discussions, says Valls, focused on reaching out to students who appeared sad or isolated. “Something simple like that is just so powerful,” she says. “It could change a very dangerous situation.”

The summits have also broken down some of the walls that exist between students in Louisiana’s largest school district.

“Jefferson Parish is a huge district, and we have some students from one side of the river and some from the other side,” says Valls, adding that students tend to form perceptions of their peers from other schools based on the rumors they hear. “You get students from different areas together for events like this, and they end up forming these great friendships.”

Starting small and focused

At Bonnabel, students learn about the Climate Club and the Restorative Center during their freshman year, in part so the practices stay with them throughout their high school years but also, notes Valls, because many behavior issues are concentrated in 9th grade, as students are adjusting to the pressures and social issues that come with going to high school.

“The Restorative Center started small with the leadership of our students,” says Erica Swanson, an algebra and geometry teacher who runs the restorative team at Bonnabel. As more students began participating in restorative circles, interest in the approach spread, and now 12 students and four teachers handle the requests for mediation that are dropped in a box outside the Center.

In fact, starting small is a lesson that Swanson says can help other schools interested in implementing restorative practices. The program at Bonnabel began as an after-school club in her classroom. The following year, she was released from a teaching period in order to oversee the restorative circles, and the students gained a spare classroom in which to found the Center. After that, schedules were arranged to allow the student leaders to be assigned to Swanson’s free period so they could do the work during class time and also receive credit.

As they took gradual steps — and celebrated wins along the way, says Swanson — other schools began to pay attention. For instance, John Ehret High, the largest high school in the state, plans to implement restorative practices in fall 2018.

“The momentum will build around your movement,” Swanson advises. “Focus on one or two key goals and make sure your work is centered around them.”

Swanson says the school’s suspension rate has dropped as the number of disputes settled through the restorative process has increased. After a resolution is reached through the restorative process, says Malik Lucas, an 11th grade peer leader at Bonnabel, a facilitator follows up with the various parties involved about a week later to check whether they are still satisfied with the outcome. “I feel like the school has changed a lot,” he says.

Rodriguez adds that he uses the skills he has gained as a facilitator any time he starts to see tempers flare among students: “I’m able to de-escalate a lot of conflicts that may arise.”

And now, when Valls visits Bonnabel and passes by the discipline office, she has noticed a change. “I used to walk in and see a lot of kids sitting in there,” she says. “But the last few times, I haven’t seen that. I think that’s due in part to the shift they are making toward restorative, rather than punitive, practices.”