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More School Districts Rethink Zero-Tolerance Policies


Earlier this year, the Obama administration asked schools across the country to rethink how they discipline students. Now, instead of automatic suspensions and other tough punishments, more schools are considering alternatives.

Laura Isensee, of Houston Public Media, takes a look at one of those alternatives.

LAURA ISENSEE, BYLINE: Two teenage girls come into the assistant principal's office at the Academy of Choice in northwest Houston. They used to be friends. But now they're fighting. It's time for a serious sit-down.


ISENSEE: In this public high school that means students and school leaders sitting in a circle and talking. They take turns by passing a black heart-shaped stone. Senior Mady Knighton goes first. She says the drama started when she sent a message on Facebook.

MADY KNIGHTON: Basically I called her a bad parent.

ISENSEE: Sophomore Lilly Girard talks about how that message made her feel about her son.

LILLY GIRARD: He was born when I was six months pregnant. He was in the ICU at the hospital for three months and I was there every day. So for you to call me a bad mother really hurt me. And I was shaking for two hours because it really hurt me.


ISENSEE: This is called a Healing Circle. Since the fall, the school has hosted dozens of them to deal with a variety of problems. Like, heading off gang fights before they happen or making nasty rumors disappear. In this Healing Circle, the two girls open up.

KNIGHTON: For me to say that, that was totally out of line. And I'm very sorry.

GIRARD: The only thing I want out of this is hopefully a friendship. And for you to know that I'm not a bad mom and I'm doing by best.

ISENSEE: Teacher Anita Wadhwa helps guide this circle. She says its part of a larger movement called Restorative Justice.

ANITA WADHWA: Though it sounds silly passing a rock and sitting in a circle, I mean, conflicts start with people exchanging words. So why can't they heal with people exchanging words? It's a pretty fairly simple concept that's 'cause it's been around for centuries.

ISENSEE: Wadhwa became interested in this kind of discipline after a former student ended up in jail. She worries about kids getting suspended and dropping out. Studies show suspending students doesn't improve their behavior or their academics. What's more, the Justice Department found that students of color were often punished more harshly and more frequently because of their race. Enter Restorative Justice.

JAMES EICHNER: I think it's really spreading and it's really popular with both students and teachers.

ISENSEE: That's James Eichner with the Advancement Project. It's a civil rights group promoting restorative practices in education. He says they're working with schools in Denver, Buffalo and Virginia. He's seen positive results in Denver; fewer suspensions and better attendance.

EICHNER: Not only does it do the sort of tangible result of reforming discipline - and meaning that kids get suspended or expelled less - but it creates the intangible better bond between students and teachers.

ISENSEE: Here in Houston, both administrators and students prefer the Healing Circles to the old way. Joel Smith is the assistant principal.

JOEL SMITH: We found that you can actually go back and unwind it all and get to the bottom of where it started. And so many times it turns out to be something very innocuous. And once you get to that everything changes.

ISENSEE: He says relationships change. Rival gang members end up shaking hands. Girls who fight become friends again.

Mady Knighton says she thought it was cheesy at first. But she likes having a voice and listening to others.

KNIGHTON: That's why it works 'cause you can talk it out. And you hear where the other person is coming from, instead of just judging them.

ISENSEE: She and Lilly and school leaders close the circle by each summing it up with a word. The words they choose include understanding, touching and rejuvenating.

For NPR News, I'm Laura Isensee in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.