Vaping, using a weed pen or being disruptive in class -- all reasons kids get suspended. But in one city, you don’t serve your time at home. There’s a center dedicated to teaching students coping skills during their suspension.
“Some students see an out-of-school suspension as a treat, because it’s like staying at home without having to get up early,” said Amy Poindexter, an assistant principal at Heritage High School in Lynchburg, Virginia, who deals with discipline every day. “It might be classroom disruption, another common one is sometimes cellphone offenses or it could be like a verbal altercation something like that, where, you know, students just kind of lost their temper,” Poindexter said. “With a lot of discipline, we don’t always have time as assistant principals and administrators to talk with kids and then follow up with them about you know, their behavior and reflect on it and to help them build the skills.”
But the new Restorative Suspension Center does have the time and resources to make a difference. “Everybody is focused on changing behavior instead of punishing students,” said Dr. Derek Brown, the Director of Student Services for Lynchburg City Schools, who said the day is very structured. They start with work to change a student’s behavior so it doesn’t happen again.
“We dive straight into the restorative work. We’ll begin to share and talk about why we’re here and what we need to do differently and start to do, that really intentional work to change a student’s behavior,” Brown said.
This also prevents absences. They do school work teachers send over so students don’t get behind in classes, and there’s mentoring and group sessions to talk about their behavior.
“They genuinely feel lighter, because a lot of times they’ve talked about stuff that they’ve been holding in for so long. If it took them getting suspended and coming over here to the suspension center so that they can get the help and the counseling that they need, that makes all the difference in the world to me,” Brown said.
Students are learning coping skills, too. “Being able to remove yourself from the situation. Meaning, just communicate to the teacher, ‘Hey, you know, I’m having a rough day. This test is stressing me out. Can I take a five-minute break?’” explained Darrius Bethel, the Chief Operating Officer for LifePush, an outside agency that comes in to work with students in the group setting. “Communicating to your teachers. They’re not an enemy. They’re partners in this as well and they genuinely want to support you, but if they don’t know about what’s going on at home and they don’t know that you might be triggered by something that’s already present. They don’t, they don’t know, what they don’t know.”
Bethel said this model is not only working in Lynchburg, it’s working in schools around the region.
“We actually use this exact same engagement approach in Danville City Schools, Pittsylvania County Schools, Amherst County Schools, and we implemented here as well. We’ve even played a major part in reducing the suspension rate in Amherst County, now, like 70%,” Bethel said.
The results show this is working in Lynchburg, according to statistics they’ve been keeping. During the first two months of the program, they served 88 students.
- Before coming to the center, those students combined accounted for 637 discipline referrals, which means they were sent to the principal for them to decide how to handle the behavior issue.
- After attending the Restorative Suspension Center program, those students only had 89 referrals -- an 86% decrease.
- 90% of students have not had to return to the suspension center, and more than half have not had any more discipline referrals.
We talked to students attending the center and aren’t naming them. We asked, “What would it be like without a place like this?” One girl said, “I’d probably be fighting or fighting. Probably be in trouble.” A boy said he would be in trouble continuously, “I’d probably be doing the same stuff and not knowing what’s wrong and how I can fix it. Knowing what the next step is, instead of going in the same pattern.”
The girl said the center is teaching valuable skills. “They taught me to sit back and think about it before actually reacting and lashing out. Because at the time, I lash out,” she said.
High school administrators notice the difference. “It gives them a tool to come back later into school and maybe make a different decision. A lot of times kids will come to me and say, ‘You’ll be so proud of me Miss Poindexter. You know I could have done this, but I use the skills and the strategies that I’ve been taught and I didn’t get angry, you know, I took a break. I talked it out first, I came straight to you instead of handling it myself,’” Poindexter said.
Right now, the limitation is space and staff. They want to open up a program for middle and elementary school students but need to hire people first. They also say time is a limitation. A ten-day suspension sometimes isn’t enough time to help students make the changes needed. Lynchburg is also exploring the possibility of opening a new Restorative Academy, a longer program that would be six to nine weeks. This summer, they’ll be holding trainings for staff at the center.
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