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Study: Restorative Practices Can Reduce Racial Disparities in Suspensions

Dive Brief:

  • A restorative practices program implemented in Pittsburgh Public Schools in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years significantly reduced the number of days students were suspended, especially in the elementary grades and among black students, a new RAND Corp. study shows.

  • Called Pursuing Equitable and Restorative Communities (PERC) — a variation on the International Institute for Restorative Practices’ SaferSanerSchools Whole-School Change program — the model was also associated with an increase in attendance at the elementary level and among students with an Individual Education Program. But the program did not significantly reduce arrest rates, perhaps because students committing violent acts are not referred to the program, and mobility rates also did not decline, except that students were less likely to be placed in an alternative school.

  • The randomized controlled trial also shows some puzzling effects on achievement. In PERC schools, performance on the state math assessment actually declined at the middle school level and among black and white students in majority-black schools, but the researchers suggest this may have more to do with how the program was implemented and not the students themselves — and while teachers surveyed didn’t credit the program with improving behavior, they did say it was improving their relationships with students.

Dive Insight:

Interest in using restorative practices to reduce racial disparities in discipline has grown in response to data showing that students of color are far more likely than white students to be suspended. Even though the Federal Commission on School Safety, under U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ leadership, has recommended rescinding Obama-era guidance meant to reduce these disparities, many schools and districts are likely to continue implementing programs that give students another way to answer for their behavior.

While the study shows that restorative practices can reduce such disparities, teachers surveyed in the district said they didn’t think it was an effective approach for some “repeat offenders,” especially those with mental health issues, suggesting that schools will need additional strategies for students with ongoing behavior challenges.

The researchers make several recommendations for schools and districts considering implementing or expanding restorative practice programs, such as weaving it into the school day, having a district-level administrator to support implementation, providing professional development for all school staff members, and collecting accurate data to determine whether the program is being used as intended and reducing negative behavior. The researchers also note that when school leaders model restorative practices, teachers are more likely to implement the principles.

An IIRP coach was also assigned to each PERC principal, but principals reported being unsure of what was expected during the coach visits and thought they should be more frequent.