Bullying and the disproportionate assignment of suspensions and DAEP (Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs) placements among minority students are emerging problems for school districts across Texas and the nation. Campus and district administrators have a limited number of options when it comes to assigning consequences for student discipline infractions. In an environment of dwindling funding, increasing expectations, and enhanced scrutiny it is imperative that more proactive options are given to campus and district administrators. Statistics show that a more reactive approach in the assignment of disciplinary consequences has led to disproportionate distribution of disciplinary assignments specific to ethnicity, race, and socioeconomic status.

A new approach to proactively reduce disciplinary offenses is emerging across the country in both research and application.Restorative circles, sometimes called peace-making circles, are community-building initiatives that operate on principles of restorative justice. Restorative circles give all parties – students, teachers, school staff and school administrators – a mechanism by which all may interact with one another peacefully and through dialogue rather than punitively in order to solve conflict.

Ed White Middle School in San Antonio, TX, implemented a whole-school restorative discipline approach in 2012 and introduced the model sequentially by grade level in a three-year project. The School of Social Work’s Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue will evaluate the program each year. Assessment will include both the circle implementation and its impact. The evaluation includes (1) baseline data on school climate; (2) implementation data on use of restorative circles, attitudes toward punishment and restorative practices, leadership support, and changes in classroom disruption, emotional literacy, problem solving, relational skills, and social discipline; and (3) impact data on disciplinary counts and outcomes, school performance, incidents of bullying, positive indicators of successful learning environment and effective conflict resolution among students.

Prior to the 2012/2013 school year, 6th grade teachers and school administrators at Ed White Middle School were trained in the use of restorative circles. At that time the school ranked highest in its district in terms of suspensions and out-of-school placements. Students were several grade levels behind in reading and the school had a mobility rate in excess of 60 percent. Year 1 saw an 84 percent drop in the use of off campus suspensions and a 30 percent drop in the use of in school suspension lasting 1-3 days for student misconduct. All categories of suspensions were reduced. School climate surveys showed that parents / caregivers had a stronger sense of procedural fairness in how decisions about discipline were made as the year progressed. The surveys also showed that students more strongly agreed as the year progressed, with the statement “the person harmed in cases of bullying is asked to say what could be done to make things better.”

Prior to the 2013/2014 school year, 7th grade teachers were trained in the model and after Year 2 7th grade in-school suspensions dropped 47 percent with just one year of restorative discipline. In addition, tardiness decreased 48 percent for the sixth grade and 39 percent for the whole school. At the end of the 2013-2014 academic year, the Texas Education Agency gave Ed White Middle School stars of distinction for student achievement in English, math, social studies, and for being in the top 25 percent in the state for student progress. The school also ranked No. 2 for improved student progress among middle schools with the same demographics. These achievements were reached even with a nearly 70 percent mobility rate among students.

In January 2015 Ed White is half-way through its third year and this year, 8th grade teachers have been trained. All students have now experienced Restorative Discipline as part of their entire middle school experience.