Nevada Joint Union High School District turns away from punitive measures to change behavior, improve climate
BY THE NUMBERS
Suspension rates have increased at three schools in the Nevada Joint Union High School District over the past three school years from 2016 to 2018.
Nevada Union: 6.4% to 8.4%
Bear River: 6.8% to 9.7%
Silver Springs: 15.4% to 36.6%. (76% of Silver Springs student population is socioeconomically disadvantaged.)
The program is called “trauma-informed, restorative instructional practice.”
But to consider it a singular program is misleading. Several practices fall under this umbrella term, which administrators hope ushers in a broader cultural shift at the Nevada Joint Union High School District.
Basically, if an issue arises with students, the goal is to first understand them and provide tools to help them resolve the issue, said Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Brett McFadden.
Rather than jumping to suspension or expulsion, the focus is instead on acknowledgement of pain, and providing necessary boundaries and new directives to modify behavior.
“Let’s find the ‘why’ behind the ‘what,’” said McFadden.
Restorative practice — now a pillar of the district — has been rolled out gradually over the last three years.
The new line of thinking is part of bringing on-campus intervention centers to Silver Springs, Nevada Union and Bear River highs schools. But it goes beyond this, according to Nevada Union High School Intervention Coordinator June Gilfillan. It also includes community circles (conducted optionally by teachers), brief interventions and informal as well as formal conferences.
Gilfillan works with a variety of students and local institutions — including The Friendship Club and county office of behavioral health — to implement the new philosophy. She said this is particularly important as Nevada Union students experience challenges. About 40% of the district population is foster youth, homeless, from low socioeconomic backgrounds or English language learners.
To do restorative work, Gilfillan said there needs to be something to restore. Students may be exhibiting a “fight,” “flight” or “freeze” response, she said, where they are unable to interact in a healthy manner at school.
“Trauma’s toxic to the brain,” she said, “and it affects a student’s ability to learn and it affects their development.”
Broadly, Gilfillan hopes to facilitate positive change by doing things with students rather than to or for students. The coordinator helps individuals manage and agree to consequences, rather than assigning them in a top-down fashion.
HOW IT WORKS
Although resolution strategies manifest themselves differently at each school site, they maintain a general pattern: students must confront individuals they’ve harmed and vice versa, said McFadden.
“The student will face that person and say, ‘OK, when you cussed at me, it hurt my feelings,’” he said.
This is something that everyone needs to practice, said McFadden, including teachers, administrators and even maintenance workers — it’s meant to be imbued in the culture.
“At the heart of this approach is repairing harm between the person and a victim,” said Mikal-Heine.
But the practice is frequently not an easy one, said Gilfillan. Whether between students, students and staff members or between administrators, those harmed must be vulnerable with the person who hurt them.
“It takes courage,” she said, “and we need a lot more courage.”
Gilfillan has helped a number of students through a technique known as an informal conferencing.
Nevada Union senior Anthony Updegraff underwent such a process. He said he was being threatened and harassed by another student, and was referred to Gilfillan’s office. He was later brought face-to-face with his harasser and had to explain why he felt threatened. The other student explained his situation while Gilfillan facilitated.
The half-hour conference was collaborative, said Updegraff, and emotionally directed. Afterward, the two signed an agreement to move forward in a healthy manner specific to resolving their issues.
“I felt a decent amount of relief walking out of it — comfortable, more safe,” said Updegraff.
After about a week, the conflict faded.
“Everything’s OK,” said Updegraff. “It’s like it never happened.”
When individuals participate with an open heart, said Gilfillan, they tend to keep their agreements.
There’s no data yet on the dozens of students she’s worked with, but Gilfillan said students often report positive results.
Updegraff said informal conferences are especially better for those who have done harm.
“I think it’s more beneficial to the person (at fault) learning something (rather) than expelling or (suspending them),” he said.
At the root of the shift is a changed belief system. It’s no longer the understanding that punitive, strict punishment will rectify student behavior, creating a healthier learning environment.
Instead, Silver Springs Vice Principal Scott Mikal-Heine said the district is now acting from a space of humility and non-judgment.
“‘People are constantly being forced into situations that are then claimed to be their nature,’” he said, quoting Noam Chomsky.
Nevada Union science teacher Mike Weaver emphasizes the importance of transparency and trust in his class’s culture. When his students are struggling – like sleeping in class, for example — he tries to start from a place of curiosity rather than criticism. He says that humility, wrapped up in a trauma-informed, restorative understanding, is what’s needed today.
“Old school is teachers demanding respect,” he said. “And I think we’re in a different age.”
Trauma-informed, restorative instructional practice could, as a by-product, lower the amount of suspensions in the district, according to Gilfillan and McFadden.
From 2016 to 2018, the suspension rate at Nevada Union rose from 6.4% to 8.4%, according to the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress. Bear River saw an increase from 6.8% to 9.7%, while Silver Springs more than doubled from 15.4% to 36.6% over the same time period. (Notably, 76% of Silver Springs’ student population is socioeconomically disadvantaged.)
While suspension rates have worsened recently, the restorative practice program, said Gilfillan, has gotten the most attention this school year. In spaces where it’s been conducted over longer stretches of time, McFadden added, suspensions and expulsions have dropped, and school cultures have improved.
Schools across California have already been implementing similar restorative justice programs, which attempt to encourage responsibility, autonomy and reduce suspensions and expulsions, according to EdSource. (San Diego Unified School District recently declared itself “A Restorative District.”)
Restorative practices have become a national concern and have consequently attracted attention from think tanks.
According to a study by the Rand Corporation, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania public schools that used restorative practices improved their school climate and average suspension rates dropped. However, in the study academic outcomes actually worsened, specifically for middle school students.
Restorative practices are also being used on some college campuses to resolve issues between victims and perpetrators in sexual assault or harassment cases, according to Vox.
At Silver Springs, Mikal-Heine said the on-campus intervention center, and restorative practice techniques, are already beginning to help.
“Silver (Springs) this year has made huge strides in terms of not just reducing suspensions, but also building relationships,” he said.
Although not necessarily tied to restorative practices, Updegraff said he’s seen a cultural shift at Nevada Union since he began three years ago.
“I do see a shift in the culture of acceptance and gratitude and respect.”
To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4219.
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