School hopes talking it out keeps kids from dropping out

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Out-of-school suspensions are on the rise across the country, a troubling statistic when you consider being suspended just once ups a student's chances of dropping out entirely. That's why many districts are hoping to keep kids in school by trying an alternative to suspension.

The "conflict resolution room" at Ypsilanti High School in Michigan is quiet and sparse — just a small couch, some chairs and a plant. For decoration there are a few homemade posters with drawings of shooting stars and signs with slogans like "Together we can!" and "Think before you speak."

It's where students go when they're on the verge of being suspended.

Peer Mediators And Room To Talk

"This room is where you come in with problems, and you leave with no problems," explains Derrion Reeves, 17.

Outside this room, Reeves is a senior. Inside, he's a peer mediator. If two students come in with a conflict — anything from problems between boyfriends and girlfriends to dealing with friendships that have gone astray — it's his job to help them work through it.

That's how Morgan, 16, ended up here. Morgan, whose last name the school asked us not to use, is a shy, quiet girl and seems like the last person who would get into a brawl. But another girl started a rumor that she was going to beat up Morgan after school one day. The two girls ended up in the conflict
resolution room, sitting face-to-face with a peer mediator.

"I came in here thinking that things weren't going to change, because I knew the person that she was. And when I left, I actually felt that we were going to become friends," Morgan says.

Restorative Justice

Peer mediation is used as a prevention tactic to stop conflicts before they get too serious. But if a fight is about to break out or already has, that's when Margaret Rohr, who runs the conflict resolution room, uses "restorative justice."

"Restorative practices basically establish a complete paradigm shift from traditional discipline," Rohr says.

With traditional discipline, the focus is on rules and punishment: Break rule X, get punishment Y. With restorative justice, Rohr explains, the focus is on harm done and relationships.

For instance, if a student starts a fight in the hall — normally grounds for suspension — Rohr will round up everyone who was harmed by the fight and have them participate in a restorative circle. The student who caused the harm has to listen as one-by-one he hears how his actions impacted those around him.

"It works," says Mara Schiff, a professor at Florida Atlantic University, "because youth are empowered to take responsibility for their own behavior, to be held accountable for their own behavior and to make it right."

Schiff, who has worked in the restorative justice field for nearly two decades, says schools in at least 20 states have started to incorporate restorative justice practices in their school discipline policies. And while there isn't a ton of data on how effective it is, she says what's out there is pretty positive.

"We're seeing decreases in suspension and expulsion rates and disciplinary referrals," Schiff says.

Suspensions Averted

At Ypsilanti High School, suspensions have decreased by about 10 percent since it started using restorative justice last fall.

Cheyenne, a 14-year-old freshman, says she was apprehensive when she first stepped into a restorative justice circle.

"I thought it was weird," she says. "To be honest, I didn't think it was going to work, because usually talking doesn't really work with me."

Cheyenne admits she has a bit of a temper, and has a few suspensions under her belt already. When she and some girls were ready to come to blows, they were marched down the conflict resolution room. Now, she says the combination of restorative circles and peer mediation has made her calmer, less quick to judge. And, thanks to the conflict resolution room, she hasn't been suspended since.

"I think it's easier to talk about it when you have another party involved that doesn't really know what's going on and isn't picking favorites," she says.

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