AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas students are experiencing a new type of discipline on their campuses, called “restorative practices” or “restorative justice programs.”

These programs are based on a philosophy switch, aiming to improve student behavior and academic success. It’s all done by boosting a sense of community, relationships between students and teachers, and making time to talk about feelings, problems, and motivations. 

About three years ago, Akins High School Principal Brandi Hosack said her school needed to change.  “We were number one in the state for suspensions and removals of students,” she said. 

After input from staff, she got help from Austin education advocate Sherwynn Patton to bring the programs to her campus. 

“Over the course of the last three and a half years, we have cut suspension rates — both in school and out of school — by close to 50 percent, we have increased the graduation rate by 7 percent, we have increased attendance rate by 3 percent,” Hosack said. 

Hosack attributes these successes to creating a culture where everyone at Akins feels what they’re feeling and what they have to say is valued.

Teachers are encouraged to listen to students who express concerns and ask them sincerely about what they were feeling at the time when they acted out. 

While this means changes to the actual process of disciplining too, Hosack says things like detentions and suspensions are more reactionary and don’t as great of an impact as changing the campus climate does. 

Sherwynn Patton, whom Akins has worked with on these new programs, runs a nonprofit called Life Anew Restorative Justice.

He first started working with restorative justice in the early 2000’s when he saw how building communities worked well with inmates at the Travis County Detention Center.

After a spike of crime in the 12th and Chicon neighborhood in Austin, Patton brought the same strategy there. He encouraged community members there to get to know each other and said the strategy worked there as well. 

“What happened here actually impacted this entire state,” he explained.

But Patton noted that it took a while for this idea to catch on in schools, he thinks the recent popularity may be because there is more research to back it up. 

Patton explained that restorative justice means restoring a sense of trust in communities. While it’s aim is to help all children, Patton added that it can be especially helpful for low income and minority students. 

“When you look at the data, black and brown males and females have borne the brunt of exclusionary practices like suspensions and expulsions,” Patton said. “It’s important for people’s voices to be heard so we can identify ways to connect with them.” 

Patton hopes other community groups like the ones he works with can do more collaboration in districts like AISD to make sure these programs actually work. 

Round Rock ISD said several of their schools are utilizing the program. Grisham Middle School received a grant from the district to make two significant changes this past year: rethinking the way discipline is carried out and building mini-communities on campus called “houses.”

Paige Hadziselimovic, the principal of Grisham Middle School, explained these houses are similar to the houses readers might be familiar with from Hogwarts, the fictional school Harry Potter attended.

She believes they boost a sense of connectedness and give students a network of mentors among their peers and staff. 

During the spring of 2017, the middle school saw a peak number of referrals — the term used for student disciplinary records. In response, Hadziselimovic brought her staff members to tour other Texas schools and took them to restorative justice training. 

She explained that part of the problem at her school was that traditional discipline wasn’t working. Hadziselimovic said students who got in trouble would be sent home, instead of dealing with the root of the problem they were facing. They would end up becoming repeat offenders. But things changed after this switch in philosophy.

“Of those top 10 offenders, nine of them returned to our school this year, of those nine students, only one is on my top offender list from this year, so that’s pretty concrete data to say that doing the restorative practices, and the relationship and community building that comes from houses and positive referrals changes behavior,” she said. 

Hadziselimovic noted that in 2016-2017, there were 422 student discipline referrals issued at her school. But after the changes, there were only 155 issued during the past school year. 

Now, Grisham Middle School also works to reward students for positive behavior, giving positive referrals which can accumulate to earn students a reward and a spot on a campus billboard. 

Austin Independent School District received a $3.5 million grant from the Department of Education in 2017 to create new approaches to suspension and expulsion through restorative practices. This will go toward work at Burnet, Dobie, Garcia, and Mendez Middle Schools as well as their feeder elementary schools. They will be collaborating with the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue to train the campuses. 

Many schools around the state are framing restorative justice programs around the training model UT has created. 

KXAN’s media partner the Texas Tribune reported on the success of these programs at Bammel Middle School north of Houston where these restorative justice programs cut the number of three-day out of school suspensions from 94 last school year to 47 this school year. 

At that school, campus leaders credited the change in culture to a new policy: taking 35 minutes twice a week for teachers and students to circle up and talk about their feelings about life and schoolwork.