Podcast Episode 6: Restorative Practices, Part 2
This is the second episode of two about restorative practices at Genesee Intermediate School District in Michigan. Guests discuss getting buy-in for restorative practices, coordinating with school resource officers, and sustaining programs after the grant period is over.
Guests: Mike Rexin, Dan Baldermann, Angela Hairston, Tamara Smeltzer
- Engaging Stakeholders in School Safety Planning (on-demand webinar)
- Sustaining School Safety Programs (on-demand webinar)
Comprehensive School Safety Planning Series Description
In this series, guests describe the importance of having a Comprehensive School Safety Plan, explain different perspectives on school safety, and highlight the connections between school safety strategies.
Other episodes in this series:
- Episode 1: What is School Safety
- Episode 2: Crisis Timeline and Law Enforcement
- Episode 3: Distance Learning, Part 1
- Episode 4: Distance Learning, Part 2
- Episode 5: Restorative Practices, Part 1
Episode 6 Transcript
Brent Miller: Hello and welcome to Progress Report, a podcast produced by the National Center for School Safety, the STOP School Violence Program National Training and Technical Assistance Center, funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The center is a project of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Thank you for tuning into this series on comprehensive school safety planning. We hope listening helps you recognize the importance of planning, understand the different perspectives on school safety and discover the connections in how various disciplines approach school safety. In our last episode, I spoke to staff at Genesee Intermediate School District, or GISD, in Genesee County, Michigan, about the kinds of restorative practices they used in their schools, as part of an NIJ grant project. Today you’ll hear from additional staff, about getting buy-in for those practices, coordinating with school resource officers and sustaining programs after the grant period is over. First is Grant Program Manager, Mike Rexin, who I talk to about what set the GISD grant apart and how his team got started doing the work.
Mike Rexin: I am the program manager for the National Institute of Justice grant that Genesee ISD currently holds. My role is to supervise the staff that are placed in our treatment sites, and to work closely with the two research teams to make sure that they get the data that they need to be able to move forward once the interventions are all done.
BM: Could you tell me a little bit about this particular project and what it’s all about?
MR: Sure. This particular project is… The funding of our project comes from, like I said, the National Institute of Justice, but the reason the funding was made available was because of the Sandy Hook shooting and President Obama was in office at the time, and right then and there, immediately afterwards, the federal government made a lot of money available for school safety research. One of the considerations from what I’m told the research team looked at was, “How young do we start these interventions? How do we identify the aims group, with which we wanna try to implement these interventions into a school building?” and they came with the determination that it was… Fourth grade was kind of where they wanted to begin that, thinking that it might be a bit too much for third graders to handle, in terms of the research and all of that, with the questionnaires and that kind of stuff that need to take place on a regular basis. It was before the middle school, before most of these students hit the seventh, eighth, and high school grades, where there’s an awful lot going on with those grades in terms of interventions and things like that. So that’s where they came to the determination that the four, five, six was probably the best target population.
Most of the grants that we have in place around the country, are looking at one or maybe two interventions, but with ours, it’s three and four interventions at a time, and that’s why we have two full research teams on this project. We have one research team from Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice and an entirely different research team from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. And they’re both looking at different things, they’re both working together in terms of data collection, data analysis, interventions, and we meet monthly as a team and talk about, “What is it that we need and how do we get it? How do we best make this work for everybody,” including being very careful with the schools, the administration, the teachers, the students, just making sure that we’re not asking too much from them?
One of the things that we really felt strongly about was putting that restorative practice and school climate specialist into a building, because you can give all the training that you want and then just ask those teachers and those administrators to just go on and do it, but by placing somebody in there and helping steer those interventions and assisting with those interventions and being a resource and a guide and encouragement… You know, some of those staff have been in these buildings for almost four years now. They’ve created some really, really strong relationships with the staff and the students, and that’s what we’re hearing, is the big difference when you’ve got that kind of support.
BM: What I’ve been hearing is just how much of a community the staff worked to build, in order to also build a community with students and faculty, and it sounds like a lot of the work being done – especially with regard to some of the restorative practices, that’s just a necessary component, and maybe sometimes an effect of those practices is building that sense of community in the school.
MR: That’s a big deal, that community. And when you really look at the heart and soul of what this grant is trying to do, is it’s trying to go into those individual classrooms and change the feeling, change the culture, change the climate and the environment so that those students are able to feel like when something happens, that they’ve got a real appropriate way to deal with it. The process allows them not only to take responsibility for their actions sometimes, but also, it really necessitates that they be a part of making it right. Which is different. It’s counter to typically how student discipline has worked over the years, it’s… Usually, it’s a student messes up and there’s a prescribed punishment, they receive that punishment, they come back to the classroom and you hope for the best. With the process that we put in place in those classrooms, they really had to acknowledge what they did and who they hurt, and then try to help figure out how to make it right. So they have to internalize a lot of what they did, as opposed to just accepting the punishment.
BM: We’ll hear more from Mike Rexin at the end of this episode. Now, on to Dan Baldermann, a climate specialist at GISD. I spoke to him about cultivating buy-in with teachers, as restorative practices were introduced in his school.
Dan Baldermann: I’m Dan Baldermann, the school climate and restorative practice specialist, at Lakeville Middle School. I’ve been doing this since 2017, so almost four years now. I worked with high school students for most of my career, actually ministry, and at one point I started doing a whole lot of mentoring and realized counseling was actually where I wanted to go. I got a counseling degree, when I graduated I started looking for a job, and this opportunity just came together, it’s actually the school where my kids attend.
BM: Did you find yourself having to cultivate buy-in when this was new, or how did that process in the beginning go? Did you face challenges and could you speak to those?
DB: Yeah, I think, like anything, there are certain people who struggle with it because they’re all at different places, they’re all on different levels of burnout and struggle from different projects and different things they’ve faced. I think of probably a couple that had some really difficult time buying into the project, were a couple of the last people to get trained, and I think their problem with buy-in was, they didn’t understand what was going on, and they heard the buzzword, but didn’t have any… They didn’t know what that meant.
It’s one of those things I say, it kind of sounds like some sort of magic spell or something, like you say these words and people are like, “Oh, that means something and I need to be trained on that,” I was like, “No, no. We’re just talking in a circle, man. There’s some details to that, but it’s really not as complicated as you think.” They went and got trained, and man, they’re two of the strongest by-ins that we have now. Soon after they got back, there was one student who came to one of those teachers and admitted to some real serious abuse in their life. And so, suddenly they’re in my office with a police officer and parents, and the student said, “No, no, no, please can I have my teachers stay here with me?” That comes from relationship development that happened because this teacher was just that much more tuned in. She was already a great teacher, but she was that much more tuned in to these things because of the training, and I see that all over the place.
If I can say, I think, that’s probably one of the biggest struggles I see from teachers too, is, “When can I do that? I tune these kids into their emotions and I will try to be available, but now I’ve got 30 of them and I’ve got one that wants to talk to me and they’re all on the corner, what do I do now?” And I think that’s a real important element for our schools to consider. We have some things built-in, we have things like rooms to send kids to when they’re misbehaving, and it would be valuable for us to reconsider might that person, rather than just need to be trained as a disciplinarian, maybe they need to be trained in some social-emotional elements, where they can use these restorative practice tools? ‘Cause really all it requires is someone who cares and has the time and not a class load of students, to be available and connect them with the proper resources.
BM: So is there anything else you’d like to share?
DB: I guess I would say, there was… A little bit before COVID, I know that restorative practice was sort of… It was the trend. I think a teacher had written an article on how restorative practices was just gonna burn them out because it was so much with their class load. And I read that and really had a lot of compassion for them, because this is what I do, like my whole day is given to that. I feel like our school has an incredible opportunity that there’s someone in my position, whereas teachers have students and struggle, they can send them down the hall to me. I think it’s incredible that I have a job where I have kids who just come into my room, clenched fists and ready to fight, and they know the place to go in my room to calm down, I don’t have to talk to them at all at first, and I wait for them to cool down. I get to do all of that, and they have this safe place that they know is a safe place like that, and I think that rather than throw out restorative practices, we need to look at the reality of the usefulness of this sort of role.
I know it’s unusual and I know it’s a funding thing, but could our schools look at some of the other positions that are being done, and could they be tweaked in such a way that we could create additional supports for our students, that would serve them in a restorative way, to help them have a safe place, where they get to be heard, where they can understand better what they are trying to accomplish and what their methodology has caused harm and how they can make it right with each other? I just think, “Man, that is a far more useful position and use of our time, than sending a kid off to in-school suspension for the day or a time out for two hours, to wait for the principal or what… ” Those conversations can happen, and it doesn’t take somebody with a master’s degree to make those conversations happen. I just think that can change an entire school’s culture, if we can just look at how to shift some of those things and support our kids in that way.
BM: Next is Angela Hairston, another climate specialist at GISD. She also discussed how the teacher she worked with bought into the restorative practices that were brought to her school.
Angela Hairston: Currently, I am a climate specialist here at Woodland Park Academy in Flint, Michigan, and I work with fourth, fifth, and sixth graders with restorative practices, where I go into the classroom and conduct circles and help the teachers to build community. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with third grade, ninth grade, seventh grade with restorative practices.
BM: How did you end up in this role or this career? What brought you to this position?
AH: I have always enjoyed working with students, I’ve always felt like there was something inside of me that I needed to give to them, this… When I saw the job description for this position, I’m like, “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for.” And as the climate specialist here, I get to encourage, uplift, redirect, empower so many students here. And it’s just amazing that that’s what they need to hear.
BM: Did you experience any pushback on… Especially from teachers, about implementing some of these new practices in the classroom? ‘Cause I know it takes time to set up a circle and actually do it.
AH: Yeah, it does. And that was the initial concern from one of the teachers, like, “I’ve already got 10 things to do and now you add another one to my list.” And so, it is an investment of time and your energy, and the buy-in doesn’t always come right away, sometimes I… I will use invention to say it took a whole year before one of the teachers really grasped the concept. And we have to do a lot of modeling with circles, we have to come up with our circle norms. In doing so, once you invest that time, you don’t have to go back. So once you set your ground rules and your time frame and have your questions in play and know who’s a distraction during a circle, once you know those things, you can have a sidebar conversation with that person and say, “Hey, I’m having circles, I’m depending on you to join in.” So it’s worth the investment.
I’ve caught her doing circles without me even being there. And it’s not just circle questions, but sometimes you can actually do some ice-breaker activities, too. It’s just a wonderful time to build community. The buy-in does take a while, but for the most part, those who are in the program appreciate it, and I’ve had the opportunity to do circles with eighth-graders, because they see it as an opportunity to problem-solve.
When you’re in a classroom and you’re dealing with situations, the best thing to do is to sit down and understand what’s going on from the students in the classroom, in order to be able to build that community. Because we as teachers, we don’t know everything, and it’s important that we get input from others, so that it is a community that is not one-sided, what the teacher says, but it’s what the students say too, is very, very important. And when you empower them and when you involve them, you get productive learning, you get cooperation, you get less negative feedback and you build that trust, which is important.
BM: In addition to teachers, the climate specialists at GISD also worked alongside school resource officers, or SROs. Dr. Tamara Smeltzer, another climate specialist, spoke to me about her experience with her school’s SRO.
Tamara Smeltzer: I have 25 years in education, but after I earned my PhD, I wanted to do something different. And so, currently in this role, I go into classrooms and we circle up, but I try to provide a prompt, to provide something different, something new to get kids engaged. It’s always fun to start with something fun, low risk, but I have been trying to align my prompts with the Michigan Department of Education, social-emotional learning competencies. And so, I post prompts, questions. Sometimes they’re questions, sometimes it’s a scenario. Today, I went into a fourth-grade room and I asked the kids, “So you have a friend and they want you to do something you know you shouldn’t or it’s just a bad decision. And how do you feel?” – that emotional piece. I didn’t ask them what they were gonna do, I just asked them how they feel and to identify their feelings. But that’s the social-emotional piece, just describing how I feel. And so for me, helping children identify how they feel has been critical.
The other reason that we dig into that, is that academic background, ’cause then we encourage language development, and that language development can show in the writing, and so that also becomes not just how I express myself, but also how I write or how I understand how a character might feel in a book or something. I’ve been… I try to be cognizant of that.
BM: Thank you. And I’m hoping that you can talk a little bit more about your relationship with some of the other members of your team. I know you mentioned the school resource officer was a life-saver.
TS: Yes, the School Resource Deputy, Deputy Steven Masser, he was my lifesaver. So I get to the building and he was part of the interview team when I got interviewed, and he gets me here, and the first thing he does is he takes me to every single classroom, and he introduces me to the children and to the teachers, which was fantastic, and he kinda gives me… Every school has its own climate, every school has its own vibe, and he was very quick to share with me, “This is how it is, this is what goes on. Let me tell you about this teacher, this teacher. Here’s a couple of kids whose names you’re gonna know. And this is what I’ve done, this is what we’ve done in the past.” It was fantastic to have that right off the bat, because when you go in and you don’t know anybody, then you’re figuring those things out, and I’ve done 25 years, I’ve done school a long time, but it was nice to have that and not have to take the time to figure those things out. So yes, he was a lifesaver.
The first couple of times I did circles… I’ve said this to Mr. Rexin, I’ve said this to my principal, I am transitioning from an academic mindset to the social-emotional restorative justice mindset, and it takes time, when you talk to children and you listen, if you hear them, if you hear what they’re saying, if you hear… I always say you gotta hear with your heart, because you’ve got to get beyond words sometimes. So this was very much a transition for me to slow myself down, again, cognizant of the academic piece, but to slow down and listen, and then not even respond until after they’re done talking, but then to ask inquiring questions, just keep asking questions till you can dig a little deeper into how they’re really feeling.
Deputy Masser was very perceptive, he already knew the kids, he knew the community, the parents knew him, he had no problem saying, “Here’s my card. If there’s something going on after school and you need something, call me.” So he built a relationship. That was critical when COVID hit, because he was… Because he could go to a home and he already has a relationship with families, but he’s going as the Sheriff’s Department, as a deputy of the Sheriff’s Department, and he’s representing the school first, but he’s also there because it’s a welfare check, “Why aren’t the kids in school? Where are they?” And so he already had that relationship, because sometimes when the cops show up, you immediately go, “Wait, what?” but he already has a relationship with families.
Yeah, he was my partner. Yeah, absolutely my partner. If there was a circle, he was in the circle. Sometimes he would throw out a prompt, any time we were doing restorative practices using that process, he did that with me. Stuff goes wrong on the playground, okay, that’s where stuff goes awry. And so, after they ate, you bring them in, you’re like, “Let’s have this conversation because don’t wanna take this back to class.” The other thing to remember now is, when a child is upset or angry or frustrated or sad, or… Then they’re not learning, and so, we’ve got to get that out… We’ve gotta take care of that and get that out of their head, so that they can go back into the classroom and focus on the academic piece of this.
BM: Dr. Smeltzer also shared her thoughts on sustaining restorative practices in her school after the district’s grant-funded project ends.
TS: They’re trying to figure out… I’m gone next year, our grant is up, but we’re trying to figure out… The behavior specialist and I are working together, and we’ve worked together since I got here, but making sure she has all of the questions that I asked and the lessons that I’ve done. I wanna make sure I give all of that to her, because they’re talking about potentially doing social-emotional learning circles, restorative practices as an elective here next year, for our specials. They call them specials in elementary school, but as a special, for 30 minutes, twice a week. That is the principal seeing the difference, that is the teachers feeling the difference in this practice, that… And so, I wanna make sure that she has everything she needs, so that that can happen next year in the school. It’s powerful. I didn’t realize it. Again, 25 years, I did middle school math, I ran a very… There was no-nonsense in my room, but I didn’t have this tool, this restorative piece, which would have been nice.
You’re just providing a framework to help children learn how to work through… I’m providing a framework that you hope they carry with them beyond school, but maybe when they’re working within the community, or as they get older and they have a job. You can’t go through life and not have conflict, you just can’t. And so then, how do we wanna solve it, is always what matters. And when you mess up, you just apologize. It shouldn’t be a big deal. You made a mistake, you messed up, you hurt someone’s feelings, apologize for that. Know “what did you do?” and make sure that the person that you’ve harmed knows that you’re sorry for that. Ultimately, this social-emotional learning, using circles and restorative practices, continues to transform the climate in the building, then nobody’s got any problems. [chuckle]
BM: Program Manager Mike Rexin also discussed the district’s next steps with regard to sustainability and the NIJ grant project. So I know, a lot of times, sustainability is a part of these projects, and just thinking about when the grant period is over, what’s next. So I’m wondering if you could speak to that at all. What are your thoughts about that or how… What’s next? [chuckle]
MR: Yeah, that’s a really good question. And I’ve been… I attend our three-person leadership team meetings in each of our buildings, so I kind of insert some different topics for conversation, and last month, that was really… One of the topics was, “So what’s next?” We can all see that this thing is kind of winding down, and for some buildings, it’s been four years and others, it’s been three years, and you’ve got an awful lot of interventions that have taken place and how do you keep that going? What are your plans? And some of our buildings are actually gonna hire our staff to keep it going, others have identified processes within their building that will keep the concepts going, but not necessarily the staffing piece of it. We are meeting today, actually, this afternoon with the research teams, and I know that sustainability is on the agenda as well, and we’re just looking at that.
The goal of this project, hopefully is, know that the data bears out that these are really solid interventions and that they’re cost-effective, and when it’s all said and done, you would certainly hope that we would be able to use this research to ask for funding on a larger scale. That’s the end goal, is to try to take something like this and offer it to our districts across the county.
BM: Our guests in this episode talked about what set the GISD grant project apart, how staff bought into the project, what it was like to coordinate with school resource officers and how staff plan to sustain the work moving forward. If you’d like to learn more, that may help in your context, you can check out the following freely available resources from the National Center for School Safety: The on-demand training, Engaging Stakeholders in School Safety Planning, which describes how to find partners that best suit your school safety program goals determine when in the planning process to connect with them; the on-demand training, Sustaining School Safety Programs, which discusses what sustainability plans are, why they are important to include in grant planning and how to write them.
Thank you for tuning in to this episode. For more information about the National Center for School Safety, visit our website, nc2s.org. You can also check us out on Twitter and Facebook. This episode of Progress Report was produced by the National Center for School Safety, at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Additional resources and information can be found in the show notes. And music is thanks to Makaih Beats.
This project was supported by cooperative agreement number 2019-YS-BX-K-001, awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the US Department of Justices, office of justice programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.