Building strong relationships in Hillsborough County Public Schools
The young girl with long, black hair walked into the small room at Bloomingdale High School. Already in the room were eight of her peers—students sitting around the rectangular table, waiting for her to arrive.
The girl slid her backpack off her shoulders and took a seat, looking down at her hands folded in front of her on the table.
She took a deep breath and finally looked up.
Even though she requested to be there—she didn’t want to be there. She was there for skipping class, and getting kicked out of class by a teacher.
She was there to speak her truth.
Her eight peers were there to listen, hand down a resolution, and then ultimately, to help.
This is a peer jury.
It’s part of Hillsborough County Public Schools Restorative Practices approach to building strong school culture that is growing at several district schools.
What is Restorative Practices? It’s a complicated phrase for a very simple concept: a philosophy that places building and mending relationships as a priority in the classroom, in the school, and in the community.
Tracy DiPrima helps lead Restorative Practices at Bloomingdale High along with Assistant Principal Dr. Nate Francis. DiPrima thinks, very often, we don’t see the whole child—especially in a school environment. “Just disciplining a kid without working on the relationship is not going to solve the problem,” she said.
Dr. Francis agrees. He said the jury’s number one job isn’t to punish. The peer jurors try to get to the root of the problem. “When we bring students in front of our team, we look at them holistically,” Francis explained. “They may have been brought down here because they skipped class an excessive number of times. When they’re brought down here, we don’t just look at that. We look at their grades, at their attendance, and we address those things.”
Restorative Practices at Bloomingdale is in its infancy. Right now, it’s used as a disciplinary tool—but Diprima and Francis hope to see it grow, as word of the program’s successes spread.
Down the street, at McLane Middle School in Brandon, Restorative Practices is used in a different way. The school is using it to build a community on campus through their student ambassadors.
School Psychologist, Dr. Donna Berghauser and School Counselor, Mrs. Felicia Burbaugh lead the efforts creating a restorative culture at McLane. They teach student ambassadors Restorative Practices so the students can use those skills to teach their classmates non-violent ways of resolving conflicts. In addition, the student ambassadors drive relationship building efforts and school improvement activities further connecting students to their school.
So far, it’s been a huge success.
“This year we’ve started implementing restorative circles and we’ve started a peer mediation program which has been really successful,” said Burbaugh. “We’re close to about 30 cases that we’ve completed.”
In restorative peer mediation, students who have a conflict with one another are sent to administration. Sometimes, administrators give those students a choice. Either take the punishment the Assistant Principal hands out or go to a student-ambassador-led peer mediation and try to work out the issues in that way. The process is restorative, and often is conducted in circle, with keen attention placed on the use of restorative language and dialogue.
“Not only has this reduced the discipline but it has given them the skills of how to respect another person and respect another perspective and how you can work together to achieve peace,” explained Berghauser.
Back at Bloomingdale High School, in the peer jury room, the young girl with long, dark hair had finished telling her side of the story. Each peer juror asked a question and then the entire group talked about possible resolutions. Together, they came to a decision.
The girl should apologize to the teacher, and then, along with one of the peer jurors, the girl and the teacher will discuss what is expected from her and how they should move forward from there.
After everyone agreed on the resolution, the real discussion and the real healing started.
One of the peer jurors looked the girl straight in the eye and said he went through exactly what she was going through during his freshman year. He advised her, gently, to really evaluate the decisions she’s making because these decisions will affect her future. Another peer juror, a senior just weeks from graduation, also spoke up, “I’ve recently been applying to a lot of colleges and they all require teacher recommendations. So it’s important to make friends with teachers.”
Several of the jurors then offered to tutor the girl—an offer she refused.
She then rose from her seat, with the jury’s instructions tucked into her backpack, and quietly walked from the room.
Did it work? Did they get through to her?
No one is quite sure.
However, they did start building the relationship.
And, as the jurors got up to leave, one young woman promised, “We won’t lose track of her.”
To learn more about Restorative Practices and how they’re used in Hillsborough County Public Schools—visit https://www.sdhc.k12.fl.us/doc/2032/restorative-practices/about/about-1468/
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