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School Hopes Talking It Out Keeps Kids From Dropping Out

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," says 17-year-old Derrion Reeves.

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

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 the others share how the student's actions impacted them.

"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," she says.

Suspensions Averted

Suspensions at Ypsilanti High School 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 to 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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.
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