An 18-year-old William Fleming High School student was charged with assault and disorderly conduct this year after an assistant principal reported he approached her in a threatening way and gave her “the bird.”

Six Patrick Henry High School students were charged after a series of fights broke out in January 2015, resulting in the use of pepper spray on students by a school resource officer.

Two girls were charged after an officer prevented a third girl from getting attacked in a hallway at Patrick Henry later that same month.

When people talk about the “school-to-prison pipeline,” these are the cases they’re talking about. The concern is that when students are funneled into the justice system for mostly typical adolescent behavior, it can result in potentially lifelong consequences for them and the community.

This fall, a pilot program in Roanoke will start with the goal of handling these types of incidents differently.

“Nationwide, a lot of attention has come to this issue of how we’re dealing with school misconduct because it was quickly realized that we were handling routine disciplinary issues by removing students from school and, unfortunately, they got involved in the juvenile justice system,” said Yolanda Conaway-Wood, executive director for student support services for Roanoke schools.

In Roanoke, this problem came into focus after a 2015 Center for Public Integrity report showed that Virginia schools referred students to law enforcement at a higher rate than any other state. The report indicated that referral rates in Roanoke far outpaced the national average.

Roanoke’s pilot program, which borrows a concept from Fairfax County, is aimed at changing the culture of disciplinary practices in order to divert students from suspension, expulsion, police referrals and arrests. The schools will emphasize the increasingly popular concept of “restorative justice,” which considers the harm done by a student and how to make amends. The goal is to reduce the use of harsh discipline and supply students with tools to cope with situations that could lead to misbehavior.

“I think for the bulk of people, given an alternative to punishment, they will take it, and we can see a dramatic decrease in putting them into the criminal justice system,” said Roanoke police Capt. Rick Morrison, who oversees the city’s school resource officers. “We’ve had the conversation and said, ‘We can do better.’ ”

It could take years before the program produces drastic change across the entire school system. But other school districts that have implemented restorative justice say they are seeing promising results. So Roanoke schools looked at Fairfax County, which has become a model for implementing the approach.

Lessons in behavior

A girl reported that a boy was sexually harassing her, and she wanted him to know how she felt. But she couldn’t bear to look at him. So she wrote a letter and gave it to her friend, said Vickie Shoap, a restorative justice specialist at Fairfax County Public Schools.

Sitting in front of the boy, the friend read aloud the letter describing the anguish the girl felt over what he was doing to her. The boy realized the hurt he had caused her, and tears streamed down his face. He wrote the girl an apology, and she accepted it. The conflict ended.

“It was really powerful,” Shoap said. “He was in tears. He had no idea he was making her feel that way.”

Historically, restorative justice has been applied to address crimes within the justice system. Shoap got her start in the courts as a restorative justice coordinator in Prince William County. She introduced the concept to Fairfax County schools, which then recruited her to implement the methods in 2011.

Traditional discipline in schools focuses on which rules were broken, who broke them and what the punishment should be. And if a student’s behavior harmed someone else, that person rarely finds resolution, Shoap said.

“Restorative justice focuses on harm rather than rule-breaking,” Shoap said. “It’s not that the rules don’t matter, it’s just that our focus is on who was harmed and how they were harmed and how that can be made right, as opposed to what rule was broken and what does the discipline code say should happen. That’s very zero-tolerance black and white.”

Referrals can be made as a diversion from the traditional disciplinary process, in combination with other disciplinary actions or as a tool for re-entry into the classroom. In Fairfax County, restorative justice comes into play in two different ways.

In the first scenario, a student is disruptive in class, for example, but law enforcement isn’t required to get involved. A student could face suspension.

In the other way, the student has committed an offense, such as assault or vandalism, that needs to be referred to law enforcement. But with its Alternative Accountability Program, the school resource officer would determine whether a student could avoid arrest.

In both instances, restorative justice facilitators would see whether the student would be willing to participate in a “circle.”

A circle can vary in form. It can be a student and a teacher, a student and another student or multiple participants, depending on how many people felt harmed by the student’s actions. Participation is voluntary, and parents must give consent.

In the circle, people explain how they felt harmed, helping students understand how their behavior affected others, Shoap said. Resolutions can range from apologies to paying for a damaged item. In the case of a student with disruptive tendencies, the student and teacher can develop a signal for when the student needs to step outside and cool off. These are things that can’t be accomplished if a student is suspended from school and returns days later with an unresolved conflict, Shoap said.

“We know behavior is developmental, like anything, such as learning math or English,” she said. “This is learning how to behave in a classroom, and some kids aren’t learning that at home.”

Shoap said the school district has not yet assembled clear data showing that restorative justice decreases recidivism. But administrators have told her that they never see those students again.

“Re-offense is much lower, because they actually learn something,” Shoap said.

Shoap said this school year will end with 500 students referred for restorative justice and another 100 students who went through the Alternative Accountability Program. Shoap said that with the latter program, none of those students re-offended. Most students offered the chance to participate in a restorative justice conference take it, she said.

The Fairfax County school system is much larger than Roanoke, with 15,000 teachers — 1,000 of whom are trained in restorative justice practices — and 166,000 students. The county funds the two specialists and five practitioners that facilitate restorative justice.

Yet what the school practices there can be translated to Roanoke schools, where nearly 1,100 teachers educate 13,600 students.

A new approach

In Roanoke schools, there were 2,193 referrals to law enforcement between January 2012 and mid-May 2015, with 42 percent resulting in charges. Less than 10 percent of those arrests were for criminal offenses that were required to be reported to police, such as threats against the school or drug possessions. The rest were for issues related to disorderly conduct, cursing, intimidation, trespassing and other minor offenses.

While there are no current statewide or national data with which to compare Roanoke’s numbers, students in Roanoke were about 16 times more likely to be referred for law enforcement as their peers nationwide during the 2011-12 school year, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Since then, Roanoke’s own numbers show that the district has cut its referrals nearly in half, but a sixth of student offenders were still being referred to police as of the last school year. So last fall, Superintendent Rita Bishop, some school employees and police officials met to discuss what more they could do.

“We agreed that school administrators have got to take a different approach to these types of problems,” Morrison said. “They have to respond better to the students and have better assessments before the police get called, and so they came up with creative programming.”

Positive Alternatives to School Suspension borrows concepts used in Fairfax County. To help pay for the program, Roanoke schools secured a $73,000 grant from the Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Roanoke teachers are being trained in classroom management and de-escalation and restorative discipline strategies. So when there’s a conflict in a classroom, they won’t automatically call the school resource officer or initiate a suspension.

“The message that we’re trying very hard to send is that accountability does not necessarily mean punishment,” Conaway-Wood said. “Discipline does not necessarily mean punishment. It means learning, teaching.”

The program also includes in-school and after-school elements for students who may be at risk of — or who already have — serious academic or behavioral problems. There, they’ll receive academic support and build social and emotional skills.

Built into the program is the introduction of restorative justice. Donna Chewning, who serves as a mediator in the court system in the Roanoke Valley, will run the circles with students in the in- and after-school programs and help train teachers and administrators.

Chewning led restorative justice circles at Armstrong High School in Richmond between 2011 and 2014. The school saw in-school suspensions decrease by about 90 percent over two years. Out-of-school suspensions dropped about 70 percent.

“When we saw kids at Armstrong come to us and ask us to have a circle, that was what this was all about,” Chewning said. “They were learning new tools and how to use them.”

Changing the culture

One of the biggest challenges in bringing restorative justice to Fairfax County schools was persuading teachers and administrators that it was worth the extra effort, Shoap said. It takes more time to organize a restorative justice circle than to suspend a student. But Shoap says that if the school takes the time to resolve the problem with a conference, the principal might never have to deal with a disciplinary issue with that student again.

“Anything that’s a new paradigm is going to take time to catch on, and you need to prove that it works,” Shoap said. “I know it works, and those who have been doing this for a long time and have practiced it can see the effects. You can see how powerful it is for the appropriate situations.”

Conaway-Wood said gaining that buy-in will be crucial to implementing restorative justice effectively in Roanoke.

“We need them to know the focus is keeping kids in class, because that’s where they’re going to learn the most,” she said. “It’s not just academics, but behavior, and if we send them home, it may be to a home where they don’t have appropriate role models.”

A re-evaluation of the role of school resource officers has yielded encouraging results so far, said Morrison, the Roanoke police officer. Between August 2014 and March 2015, there were 61 arrests at the city’s middle and high schools; 31 were for disorderly conduct charges. During that same time frame this school year, there were 41 arrests. Just nine were for disorderly conduct.

Morrison said he doesn’t want officers to be the first call when classroom disruptions happen.

“We wanted to get back to that initial intent of the position: to be a mentor, to be a resource, to be a guide, to be that uniform presence, but not as a big bad cop, but as someone there to help,” Morrison said.

The Virginia Legal Aid Justice Center issued a report earlier this year advocating the use of restorative justice in schools to reduce referrals to law enforcement and restore relationships between people. Jason Langberg, one of the authors of the “Protecting Childhood” report, said what is happening in Roanoke is a step forward.

“They’re thinking outside the box, and I think it’s encouraging and Roanoke schools should be applauded,” he said. “They admitted they have a problem, and that’s the first thing to get past.”

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