There are no bullies in Horicon, only students who have made bad choices. Taking a positive and proactive approach to improve the school environment, the Horicon Van Brunt Elementary and Middle School has changed its approach when responding to students who have made bad choices--and reduced disciplinary referrals by over 60 percent since 2009.
The Horicon Van Brunt School is a 485-student rural school located in southeast Wisconsin. The school houses both an elementary school and a middle school under one roof. When the current school principal, Aaron Olson, started in 2009, he made a few immediate observations.
Between classes, the hallways were extremely noisy and teachers were finding it difficult to maintain supervision. As a result, this was frequently where bullying and other incidents of misbehavior occurred, often out of sight of the teachers. Reports to the principal's office indicated that Van Brunt's playground was another major problem area for supervision during recesses and lunchtime.
Principal Olson also noticed that as students graduated into the sixth grade, students from seventh and eighth grade regularly hazed the sixth graders as a rite of passage into the middle-school grades. This rite of passage was perpetuated each year as new seventh graders saw it as their right to bully the new crop of sixth graders, just as they were bullied the previous year. "Our staff was looking for something that would send a strong, consistent message to students whose misconduct was impacting the entire school. At the same time, they agreed that discipline doesn't have to be strictly punitive and exclusionary. They believed that together we could find a positive, supportive discipline model that would actually change negative behaviors versus just managing them" (Olson, personal communication).
Enter Restorative Practices and a school-wide reformation of Van Brunt's disciplinary policy and student support system.
To help make changes, the Horicon School District partnered with other school districts in Dodge County to apply for a US Department of Education Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) grant. The local SS/HS initiative is called Dodge County Connections and comprises the school districts and police departments in Beaver Dam, Juneau/Dodgeland, Horicon, Hustisford, Lomira, Mayville, Neosho, and Waupun. In addition, the Dodge County Sheriff's Department, the Dodge County Department of Health and Human Services, Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, and Restorative Justice for Dodge County, Inc. also participated in the consortium.
As Principal Olson implemented new strategies for reducing bullying and other student risk behaviors, the Horicon School District was beginning a comprehensive initiative to introduce Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) strategies throughout the district schools.
The first step was to implement a PBIS system for the school as an overarching platform for positive youth development and school-climate reform. The main expectations in the PBIS system were to teach students to “Respect Yourself,” “Respect Others,” and “Respect Environment and Property.”
Within the PBIS framework, professional development programs—Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training from CPI, Restorative Practices (RP) from the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP), and Safe School Ambassadors (SSA) from Community Matters—were implemented annually across the entire school community. Each offering provided additional tools for staff and students to help create a more positive climate throughout the school. As these programs were integrated into Van Brunt’s community, Olson and staff introduced all students to their roles in meeting behavioral expectations and supporting one another.
Restorative Practices in education provides students and educators with skills to collaboratively address conflict, bullying, and other risk behaviors. The underlying principle of the Restorative Practices program is that people are more empowered, productive, and cooperative when those in positions of power do things with them rather than for them.
Through the use of restorative circles, facilitated by trained educators, students participate in understanding the impacts of their behavior and the harm done to others. The students then work together to “make it right.” Restorative circles, whose origins are found in Native American tribal customs, can be used in a variety of classroom situations. While passing a talking piece, each circle participant is given a turn to express her thoughts and feelings while others listen respectfully.
Restorative Practices and restorative-circle exercises help educators support antibullying policies and programs, help students restore broken relationships with authorities and peers, and teach positive responses to negative behaviors. At the same time, Restorative Practices helps students understand effective ways to resolve conflict, heal harm done to peers and the school community, and take responsibility for finding solutions to bullying and other risk behaviors.
Teachers and administrators at Horicon schools have implemented Restorative Practices by conducting circles in classrooms to set and maintain behavioral norms; using circles in academic-improvement exercises; integrating circles into disciplinary actions and consequences for bullying and other risk incidents; supporting victims of bullying through staff outreach, group support, and counseling; engaging parents in restorative solutions to misconduct; and providing ongoing training in Restorative Practices for all Horicon staff and administrators.
Principal Olson also recognized Restorative Practices as a foundation for reforming Van Brunt’s disciplinary protocols. He realized that teachers were spending significant supervisorial and instructional time on addressing acts of misconduct that often resulted in referrals to his office—a cycle that did little to prevent repeat behaviors or improve student–authority relationships. A single incident in a classroom that lasts two minutes may not seem that significant at first, but if one considers that up to thirty students lose two minutes of instruction time, that adds up to a full hour.
When Principal Olson approached Van Brunt guidance counselor Cynthia Borgstrom with his vision for a restorative disciplinary program, the seeds were planted for Horicon’s innovative Turn Around Program (TAP). Restorative Justice for Dodge County, Inc. (RJDC) was called upon to assist in implementing and facilitating restorative disciplinary protocols that addressed the needs of Van Brunt staff and students.
The TAP process is strikingly simple. Teachers and staff who observe bullying and other physical or verbal misconduct immediately inform offending students that they will be referred to two TAP sessions. Referrals are submitted to Ms. Borgstrom, who manages a student database that describes the nature, date, and location of offenses. This helps her track patterns of individual student behavior that may require counseling, family conferencing, or specialized professional services.
TAP sessions are conducted separately for elementary and middle-school groups by a trained restorative facilitator. Students meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays during lunch and recess periods so that they are not removed from classroom instruction. Sessions of 45 minutes each are comprised of restorative circles in which students discuss circle rules (Figure 1) and values (Figure 2), and are then asked to respond to IIRP’s restorative questions that respond to challenging behavior (Figure 3).
For students in kindergarten through second grade, misconduct is addressed by staff assigned to playground “Walk and Talks” during recess. Here students have a chance to describe how their behavior affected others and how they can help repair a friendship or apologize to someone who has been hurt. Teachers report that these approaches have helped students develop a sense of empathy and respond to the feelings of others.
Within several months of TAP implementation, Olson and staff noticed changes in the ways students interacted with one another and with authority figures. Teachers who had adopted Van Brunt’s new approach to discipline with some skepticism were experiencing firsthand the benefits of employing restorative versus punitive responses to student behavior.
Van Brunt assistant principal Paul Heidemann, who had championed with Olson and Borgstrom the use of Restorative Practices, was an early and eager adopter of circles in the classroom and in disciplinary conferences. “I always believed in discipline with dignity. Authors of offenses and victims need to work out their issues together so that they can understand how unkind words and unsafe physical behaviors impact each other and others.” Heidemann regularly uses restorative circles in his classroom and in disciplinary actions. “Circles provide a sense of belonging and community that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to achieve. Since we began using circles, students are much more eager to participate and even request that we ‘circle up’ when community issues arise” (Heidemann, personal communication).
As staff and administrators have come to appreciate the value of Restorative Practices in student interaction and discipline, the most persuasive indication of the positive power of RP comes from Van Brunt students themselves. D. K. was assigned to numerous TAP sessions for physical aggression as a sixth grader at Van Brunt. During seventh grade, she promised Mr. Olson that she was changing and was asked to help elementary students assigned to TAP. Today, as an eighth grader, she has attended one TAP session for involvement in rumor spreading. “I feel safer now and there are people who take time to listen. I still make mistakes, but I know someone is there to help me, not just punish me” (D. K., personal communication).
To date, eight IIRP professional development trainings have been provided to over 120 SS/HS Dodge County Connections staff and administrators in eight schools and four county agencies and clergy. Ten IIRP-certified trainers from these schools will continue to train practitioners after the SS/HS grant terminates next year. According to Olson, “Our trainers and practitioners are eager to spread Restorative Practices throughout our staff and to support one another in developing strategies to keep our school and our students safe. And, we are excited to continue work with IIRP in developing school-wide practices that can be shared with other educators in Wisconsin” (personal communication).
Implications for Schools and Beyond
As incidents of bullying and other risk behaviors increase in our schools, educators are finding that traditional forms of discipline are unsuccessful in changing behaviors and creating safe, supportive school environments. Research shows that punitive and zero-tolerance policies—including detentions, suspensions, and expulsions—are not preventing or reducing risk behaviors, but instead have negative impacts on student learning and school engagement (American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008).
Further implications for schools include teacher dissatisfaction and mounting losses in instructional time necessary for staff and administration to manage misconduct and discipline, estimated by Olson at up to 10 minutes per class period prior to implementation of Restorative Practices and TAP. Community Matters estimates that costs associated with suspension and expulsion proceedings, truancy/ ADA rates, vandalism, student dropout rates, and alternative education placements can total US $2,314,600 for an average school with a 1000-student enrollment (Phillips, 2010).
Van Brunt is realizing the rapid benefits reaped through Restorative Practices and TAP. Since the program’s implementation in 2009, TAP referrals have been reduced by 60 percent, and between 2010 and 2011, office disciplinary referrals for repeat offenses have been reduced by 33 percent.
Through the use of the interventions at Van Brunt School, students are learning more positive behaviors and productive ways to respond when they feel that another student has harmed them. Conflicts are still bound to come up, but through programs like Restorative Practices, students learn that their actions have real consequences that can harm themselves and others. They learn that they can shed negative reputations that can follow them from grade to grade and into adulthood.
That is why Principal Olson proudly states that there are no bullies in Horicon—just students who need help making better choices. Will students still make bad choices from time to time? Undoubtedly, yes. However, what comes after that choice can make a difference the next time the student is faced with a similar choice.
About the Authors
Patrice Vossekuil directs the Wisconsin affiliate of the International Institute for Restorative Practices as training and program development coordinator for schools and human services agencies. She is also the Horicon School District site manager for the Safe Schools/ Healthy Students grant initiative, and she conducts TAP, the elementary and middle-school restorative referral program. She can be reached at email@example.com or 920.858.9468.
Robert D. Rettmann is the director of research and communications for CPI and is editor of the Journal of Safe Management of Disruptive and Assaultive Behavior. Before joining CPI, Bob served as a newspaper editor. He is father to three children who attend Horicon Public Schools, and he holds a master's degree in exceptional education.
Originally published in the Journal of Safe Management of Disruptive and Assaultive Behavior, March 2012. ©2012 CPI.