Innovation Ecosystem

Restoring hope, repairing harm, upholding accountability

The efforts to develop restorative practices in schools across Rhode Island reaches an important milestone in pursuit of a common language

Photo by Richard Asinof

Julia Steiny, who as head of the Youth Restoration Project is leading the effort to bring restorative practices to Rhode island schools, coordinated a statewide conference at Rhode Island College on May 20.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/23/16
The Restorative Practices symposium at RIC on May 20 served as a way to showcase the innovative work being done to change the way that discipline is handled in Rhode Island schools, moving away from the expensive and adversarial punishment systems and toward restorative justice that brings together students, families, teachers and school administrators in a collaborative fashion.
Why did Gov. Gina Raimondo schedule a competing event at the same time on the RIC campus? What are the other places in Rhode Island, such as the parents’ college for Central Falls residents at RIC, where restorative practices are being implemented? As part of the evaluation of the outcomes of the pilot project, will there be data around the avoided costs in days of school class time lost? Is there a way for interventions around parents’ trauma to be integrated into the restorative practices effort?
One of the unifying themes that cuts across mental health, behavioral health, and restorative practices in schools is the way that toxic stress influences patterns of disruptive behavior. ConvergenceRI has begun discussions about the potential to develop a unified academic curriculum around toxic stress, first for Rhode Island colleges and universities, with the potential to then scale up to a national presence. The goal will be to create an interdisciplinary approach that can be integrated into the curriculum for nurses, doctors, social workers, counselors, therapists and teachers. Stay tuned.

PROVIDENCE – Attending the Restorative Practices Across Rhode Island symposium for half a day on May 20 at Rhode Island College was very much like being both a participant and an observer in an inclusive, show and tell event, attended by more than 100 people, sharing the tools, techniques and stories of the restorative work now underway in Rhode Island schools.

Those in the audience had the opportunity to listen to speakers as they detailed the ongoing practices and also to learn some of the fundamental tools and tactics involved – the use of the “talking piece” within a circle, the importance of listening, not interrupting, in being heard, in not blaming, and in talking in the first-person voice.

The focus of the conference was to share the innovative, provocative work being done under a $3.68 million federal grant awarded in 2014 to develop a pilot project to make schools safer by investing in “restorative” justice practices, through which students, teachers, administrators and families work together to resolve conflicts and repair any harm caused by misbehavior.

The underlying emphasis of the restorative practices is to improve mental and social health in Rhode Island, working in a collaborative fashion with students and school administrators.

As Ruth Feder, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island, who opened the gathering, said: “Mental health in Rhode Island is in crisis. We need to break out of the traditional medical model in how we address mental health.”

The restorative practices work outside of the traditional medical model, Feder continued. “There is no health without mental health,” she said.

Holding people accountable, repairing harm
The restorative work, which is focused largely on the Central Falls School District but also involves schools in Westerly and two charter schools, Blackstone Valley Prep and the Greene School, is based upon the concept of restorative justice, first developed in New Zealand.

The concept is straightforward: hold people accountable for their actions while repairing harm, according to Julia Steiny, executive director of the Youth Restoration Project, which is coordinating the project.

“The premise is that there are alternatives to the expensive and adversarial punishment systems,” Steiny explained, in her introductory remarks. Restorative practices, she continued, “can reduce the schools-to-prisons pipeline.”

The goal of the symposium, Steiny told ConvergenceRI, was to “promote the ideas of restorative practices out into the community, because if [the concept] becomes more rooted out there, our jobs get easier.”

The problem, by the numbers
“Suspension usually does not deter students from misbehaving and may actually reinforce negative behavior patterns,” according to the 2016 Rhode Island KIDS COUNT Factbook. “Suspended students are more likely than their peers to experience academic failure, juvenile justice system involvement, disengagement from school, isolation from teachers and peers, and dropping out of school.”

Being suspended even once in ninth grade is associated with a two-fold increase in the likelihood of dropping out, according out, according to the Factbook.

The numbers of out-of-school suspensions in Rhode Island during the 2014-2015 school year was 12,974, about half of the total of 26,677 disciplinary actions, according to the Factbook.

In total, there were 43,129 days of suspension in Rhode Island during the 2014-2015 school year, according to Megan Swindal, from DataSparkRI at the Providence Plan, who spoke at the conference. Some 7.5 percent of students in Rhode Island received suspensions, Swindal said.

One way the cost of suspensions can be measured is in the years of lost school class days, Swindal said.

DataSparkRI is working with the Urban Institute to develop the research and analytical tools to measure the effectiveness and outcomes of the restorative practices pilot project.

Perhaps the most powerful testimony in support of the effectiveness of the restorative practices came during a panel discussion that featured: Troy Silvia, the principal of Central Falls High School; Barbara Martin, a juvenile justice specialist; Megan Clingham, the state’s mental health advocate; Fran Gallo, the retired Central Falls school superintendent; David Kane, a disability law advocate; and Sgt. Michael Wheeler, commanding officer of the Providence Police Student Resource Officers unit.

For Silvia, the restorative work is all about “building a sense of community” in the school, based upon building relationships. Silvia described a recent incident where a student was reported striking something with a knife; it turned out it was a student trying to open a can of pineapples. The occurrence could have led to the student being arrested, but instead, because of the restorative practice methods, it became a teachable moment.

For Gallo, the former superintendent, the conference celebrated the achievement of restorative practices: “Today is a tremendous milestone in cultural change,” she said.

Gallo told the story about how a student, surrounded by her family, asked for the use of her offices, saying: “I need your office.” The student then walked in, looking for something to serve as a “talking piece,” choosing a pen with an ostentatious top. The student and her family then formed a circle, often talking in rapid-fire Spanish that Gallo couldn’t follow.

Whatever the conflict, it got worked out, and the student was heard, Gallo continued. “I knew then that [restorative practices] were working.”

Wheeler talked about the role of the Student Resource Officers in reducing arrests. “Some kids we have to arrest,” he said. But, he continued, voicing his support of the practice of restorative justice, “It all comes with how to repair harm.”

The disconnect
At the very same time as the Restorative Practices symposium, Gov. Gina Raimondo scheduled an event at the Rhode Island College Student Union to talk about bringing talent and businesses together to meet the demand for new tech jobs.

The media event was scheduled to feature R.I. Department of Labor and Training Director Scott Jensen and the state’s Chief Innovation Officer, Richard Culatta.

“If we want our kids to have the best opportunities in our tech-driven economy, everyone needs to step up to help them keep pace and develop the skills that matter,” Raimondo said in the news release. “Part of turning our economy around and creating jobs is making sure every student, at every level, is equipped with the ‘new basic skills’ like computer science.”

When ConvergenceRI asked Steiny about the scheduling conflict, and whether there was a disconnect, she said: “The way I think about it is: you have to think about building layers. [All too often], what everybody wants to do is to go to the highest level first. And, it just doesn’t work.”

Steiny continued: “It’s sort of like obsessing about the 10 traumatized kids in the school that are driving everybody nuts,” instead of building out a system of restorative justice. “You need to start with mental health, and physical health, and build out the community health, and build out a work ethic, before you get to the jobs issue. That’s what I believe.”

Further, Steiny said: “I look at many of the kids; they are not remotely ready for a job, they’ve got other issues that we’ve got to solve first.”

Reinvention in Central Falls
In addition to the restorative practices grant and its primary focus in Central Falls, there is also the ongoing work to create one of the state’s first Neighborhood Health Stations, in partnership with the Blackstone Valley Community Health Care center, at the site of the former Notre Dame facility, with plans to build a new community-based facility to serve as one-stop shopping for health care for community residents.

Has Steiny been in contact with Dr. Michael Fine, who has been leading the effort?

Steiny said that both initiatives were “huge” and she hoped that the two efforts could find some common ground to collaborate. She hadn’t yet connected with Fine.

“One of the lines that you start with restorative practices is: walk through open doors,” Steiny explained. “At this moment, there are a lot of doors open, we are keenly aware of that.”

Her job, Steiny continued, is to make sure that the restorative practices effort takes root in Rhode Island, so that when the grant is over, the initiative is sustainable.

Looking ahead, Steiny talked about conversations taking place in the national restorative community about place-based work. “The restorative practices work best when communities are fairly stable,” she said. “Of course, you have to stabilize them first. There’s no end to the nuances and challenges out there. Right now, we’re just trying to get people the basic tools, to work together, with a common language.”

The May 20 symposium appeared to be a strong first step in that direction.

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