A soft approach to school discipline at New Orleans’ Marrero Middle School is reducing suspensions and building relationships—a new dynamic after years of arresting and suspending students for bad behavior.

In 2015, Marrero Middle School drew national media attention when a Jefferson Parish 8th grader was arrested and handcuffed in front of his social studies class for throwing Skittles on the bus the day before.

According to The Atlantic:

The Skittles arrest drew national scrutiny. In response to the attention, the school district came up with a new discipline plan featuring restorative justice. The handbook now gives students the right to request a restorative circle before a suspension and offers schools guidance in how to use restorative techniques. The district also contracts with (New Orleans nonprofit Center for Restorative Approaches) to facilitate circles or train staff in restorative practices for any school that wants them.

In “restorative circles,” student caught fighting or breaking other rules or laws come together with a facilitator and parents to “repair the harm” through some sort of an agreement, a process Marrero principal Christina Conforto contends is more of a punishment than sending students home.

“Staying home for three days is an easy solution. That’s a vacation,” she said. “What is a harder solution is to sit there amongst your peers and their parents and your parents, and be made to take responsibility for what you did wrong. Being made to make amends, to have to make a contract, and have to apologize and shake hands in front of everybody? That is much more difficult than to stay home for three days.”

Since Marrero implemented the restorative justice approach in August 2016, suspensions at the school have declined by 56 percent, though Trout said the statistic is a side effect of the real goal of restorative justice.

“The goal of restorative practices is to create cultures and climates in which people feel connected to each other,” she said.

The process of building a stronger community at Marrero will undoubtedly benefit students and staff in ways they couldn’t predict.

James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and University of Virginia sociologist,  notes in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America that “The components of morality are expressed in a community’s institutions, including its moral rules . . ."

“When it functions well, our moral culture binds us, compels us, in ways of which we are not fully aware,” he wrote.

Marrero is putting in the hard and slow work of establishing moral rules in its school climate and culture by requiring students to take responsibility for their actions. Not only does it reduce suspensions, and possibly incarcerations, but also establishes norms and practices of making amends students are unlikely to forget.

Restorative practices are difficult, and success requires sustained, committed work. The Centre for Justice and Reconciliation offers a six-part tutorial to better understand the model used at Marrero.

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