Podcast: From Punitive to Positive: Changing School Culture

Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

From science to socioeconomics, there are a myriad of factors to consider when establishing a base of support for students. The Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) Violence Prevention Team is an organic embodiment of the potential that is unlocked when professionals from different areas of expertise come together to cultivate the best practices that allow students and staff to thrive in our schools. This episode of Unrestrained, a CPI podcast, is exciting and unique because it dives deep into the realities of restorative justice and trauma-informed education, allowing you to hear from the experts engaged in this day-to-day process and observe how they work together.
The three guests in this month’s podcast bring together diverse experience within the sphere of education, but that diversity is, according to them, one of the most inherent values that is at the greatest risk in today’s educational process:
“In the absence of a culture that promotes and supports and values the public school as the last bastion of true diversity, true, unadulterated, organic diversity, be it socioeconomic, ethnic, whatever, if we don’t value that as a society, then really what we’re saying is that we don’t believe that human beings should have to learn how to coexist.
And that’s very, very dangerous because the entire purpose of public schooling in our society was to create spaces in which we were building citizens. And in a diverse society, how can you build a citizen in the absence of diversity?”
–Drew de Lutio
The way that these professionals have integrated their respective expertise to staff the MPS Violence Prevention Office, and the way that this office itself has evolved to meet the needs and challenges that students and staff face, is truly inspiring. Pamela Hansen, Drew de Lutio, and Travis Pinter are unafraid to tackle complex questions or delve into hot topics like how social emotional learning impacts the three R’s, how socioeconomic and racial segregation in Milwaukee has impacted its children, or how restorative justice works in real time—to name only a few.
Hansen, de Lutio, and Pinter agree that training is critical to helping school staff shift their paradigm from punitive to positive when it comes to helping public school students succeed. The team’s experience gives them a perspective on public education that is insightful, impassioned, and most importantly, hopeful.

"In a diverse society, how can you build a citizen in the absence of #diversity?" -Drew de Lutio, Milwaukee Public Schools

Building Trauma-Sensitive Schools  

“Poverty is the worst form of violence,” said Gandhi, and a key strategy to preventing violence in schools is understanding the traumatic social and psychological circumstances that give it rise. Has a student come to school hungry, neglected, abused? And have those dire circumstances created a maelstrom of stress, self-doubt, and aggression, lurking just below the surface?
Since students don’t come to school wearing stickers that say “Warning: Contents Under Pressure,” it behooves educators to be sensitive to the traumas students experience, which may present when they act out in violent ways. Given the growing social disparities and deplorable byproducts of poverty and oppression currently bedeviling our culture, chances are good that in any public school classroom you’ll find a number of students living with severe trauma.
According to Pam Hansen, there are three critical components of building a trauma-sensitive school:

  • Build trust and empower students by offering choices.
  • Recognize and acknowledge trauma.
  • Create policies/procedures that don’t retraumatize.

As Pam explains, a collaborative approach is required. “We want to empower our students. We also want them to have that sense of voice as well as giving them choices. We really like to collaborate with both the staff, the students, as well as their families because their families are also very key. So, to create a trauma-sensitive school is like an all-encompassing thing, so it really is involved with a lot of different areas.”
One critical skill that can help traumatized students is self-regulation. When students learn how to self-regulate, teachers can present them with sensory strategies that help them self-regulate and calm down when they feel overwhelmed. Sensory strategies can include things like chewing gum, drawing or doodling, or even items that allow them to fidget. Whatever the preference of the student, presenting them with the go-to option of a calming technique can help them learn not to act out when internalized trauma might otherwise provoke a violent reaction.

Help Your Students Join the Glitterati

Shake it up, baby! One fun and easy way to help kids understand the difference between the doing brain and thinking brain is to have a class project where they make something known as a Glitter Jar, also known as a Calm Down Jar. All you need is a jar with a water-tight lid, glitter, water, and dish soap.

Pam says that students can use Glitter Jars in mindfulness practice, and as a visual tool that helps illustrate the fight-or-flight response. When you shake the jar, the glitter is suspended in a cloudy swirl, reminding us that the doing brain is in a state of unclear, frenetic activity. But when you set the jar down and allow the glitter to settle, the top of the jar again grows clear. “We try to use that as our little metaphor for our students that this is then allowing our minds to clear and get back to that calm state. So it's a good visual tool for our students, and students can make them, and they can actually have those available on their desk or somewhere in their classroom to help them when they feel like they’re getting that sense of [being] overwhelm[ed].”

The Utilitarian Value of Restorative Practices  

One of the cornerstones of the violence prevention initiative at MPS is its restorative philosophy: that trusting relationships are the foundation of a healthy community, and in the absence of trusting relationships, community will develop, but it will be dysfunctional. To develop and sustain trusting relationships, the team uses a set of tools known as restorative practices. Restorative practices can range from formal to informal activities, and are designed to prevent behavior and incidents that damage relationships and provide a method to repair them if damage occurs. Drew de Lutio explains:

“The very informal things involve language and empathic listening. And by language, I mean things like affective questions and statements. Sometimes we call them “I” statements, but really teaching people to speak in a very specific way that involves identifying feelings, the feelings that are at the root of maybe the hurt or harm that someone else has caused you, you know, ‘I feel this way because of this.’

Those formal practices would be the things that you would use very intentionally to repair a relationship, things like repairing harm circles, very common in, for instance, restorative justice. So bringing people who have harmed and the victims of harm together to then go through a really intentional set of questions and pre-conferencing that sort of allows the person who's been harmed to have a voice in their own healing process. That’s very formal.”

The team is quick to point out the extreme contrast between the philosophy and benefits of restorative practices and zero-tolerance policies. Where zero-tolerance policies serve to simply remove troubled kids from the student population, a school that embraces restorative practices can experience benefits including improved scholastic achievement, increased attendance, and reductions in antisocial behaviors including classroom disruptions, bullying, and disputes between students and staff.

Social and Emotional Learning: Soft Skills, Hard Numbers  

Another central component of the MPS Violence Prevention Program is the construction of a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) framework. SEL brings profound and proven benefits to cognitive development and well-being. Through focusing on core skills like self-awareness and -management, relationship skills, and responsible decision making, kids who participate in SEL programs learn to be more inclusive, cooperative, kinder, and less aggressive. The positive effects can last for a lifetime, and that means that in addition to a significant change to the culture of their schools, children who learn in an SEL framework may very well go on to live more meaningful and successful lives that contribute consistently and positively to their surrounding communities.

For critics who dismiss SEL programs as “fads” that distract from the three R’s, Travis Pinter has a measured and persuasive response: “People need to be practical. We can't go in and say we're going to do things in schools. We have to show results of some kind, and I get that we’re results-oriented in that way . . . But to me, the simple answer to that is by showing results. And the fact is those things do lead, there's no question in our minds and in the data. There’s been some really good meta-analysis studies, and we could link this, that have come out in recent years that show, at one point, it was 11 points. I think it's gone up higher [according to the linked 2017 CASEL Meta-Analysis, the academic performance of students in SEL programs is 13 percentile points higher than their non-SEL peers], but SEL programming will lead directly to an 11-point gain in standardized testing percentile rank. That's a significant gain.”

He points out that SEL carries with it significant economic value, referring to a recent study on the economic value of social and emotional learning from the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education Teachers College, Columbia University that indicates a cost-benefit analysis of an $11 return for every dollar spent.

It could be favorably said of SEL that the buck starts here.

#SocialEmotional Learning brings significant benefits to cognitive development and well-being.#SEL

Segregation and Trauma Meet Public Education at the Crossroads

The economic and social disadvantages that accompany poverty sometimes follow kids to the classroom in the form of depressed student performance, and when those disadvantages are compressed into homogenous neighborhoods and schools, the negative results are intensified. When the group was asked if segregation in MPS schools also adds to the level of trauma seen in these facilities, the answer was unequivocal: “The short answer is yes,” says Travis Pinter, and no contrary idea was offered.   
According to Travis, statistics from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network indicate that by the age of 16, 70% of students from urban environments have experienced at least one trauma, while the overall number is 25%. Urban environments also have the dubious distinction of presenting chronic stressors like higher unemployment and crime rates. It follows that these blighted conditions accompany many students as they struggle to navigate and learn in schools, fighting for their very credibility.
Near the conclusion of the interview, an exchange between de Lutio and Pinter illustrates how this social perspective underscores the weighty challenges facing the Violence Prevention Program at MPS:
de Lutio: In the absence of a national dialog or discussion around how socioeconomic segregation, even in our country, has exacerbated people’s perspectives on the purpose of a public school and what it’s intended to be, that’s very difficult. It’s very difficult to promote our work when, we, as an institution, public schooling, is at a crossroads in terms of having to justify its own existence.
Pinter: I would say crossroads is light. I’d say it’s under attack.
It is a sadly ironic note when an educator devoted to preventing violence feels he must remark on destructive forces bent on undermining the very institution he works so hard to better.

Guest Biographies

Andrew de Lutio
A social studies teacher at Milwaukee High School of the Arts for nearly 10 years, Drew de Lutio now serves as the restorative practices coordinator on the Violence Prevention Team. With other teachers and district social workers, Drew helped develop the first Restorative Practices course in MPS and subsequently taught and modified the class to accommodate MPS’s trauma-sensitive schools’ initiative. As the restorative practices coordinator, Drew works to implement Restorative Practices across MPS schools while simultaneously offering coaching and support to teachers and administrators.

Pamela Hansen, MSW, APSW
Pamela Hansen received her Master of Social Work (MSW) from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1995 with an emphasis on school social work and clinical social work. Pamela has been a school social worker for MPS since 1995. She has provided School Social Work (SSW) services at all grade levels, elementary, middle, and high school. She is currently working with the Violence Prevention Program, providing professional development to MPS staff with a focus on Trauma Sensitive Schools.
Travis Pinter, Ed.S. 
Travis Pinter has been an MPS school psychologist since 2004, serving children in preschool through high school settings throughout the city of Milwaukee. He has been a member of the MPS Crisis Response Team since 2005, and a facilitator of the team since 2010. Mr. Pinter is also a member of the Violence Prevention Program—which designed and delivered trauma-sensitive schools training during the 2015–2017 school years for all of MPS’s 158 schools as well as its central office staff. As of October 2017, Travis has served as the coordinator of the Project Prevent: Resilient Kids grant.