‘Restorative Practices’ changing discipline in Lee schools

LEHIGH ACRES, Fla. Conversations, focus groups and community service instead of detention and suspension.

That’s the new reality for many Lee County students as the school district implements Restorative Practices, a new disciplinary program designed to help students resolve their own conflicts.

“We are teaching children to actually think about what’s going on in their mind and why they are acting the way they do,” school district prevention specialist April Thompson said.

Traditional punishments remain on the table, particularly if a student threatens or hurts someone. But out-of-school suspension — one of the ultimate hammers students face — is happening much less often.

“When a student is not in the classroom, they fall behind,” Lehigh Acres Middle School teacher Jennifer Ryan said. “They’re not only missing the instruction from that day, they’re missing what they’re learning when they’re working with others.”

Out-of-school suspensions are down 66 percent from last year at Ryan’s school, which led the district in suspensions and alternative placements in 2015-16, principal Neketa Watson said.

South Fort Myers High School issued 128 out-of-school suspensions last year and only 16 so far this year. The year-over-year number at The Success Academy is down from 204 to 30.

Teri Rigdon sees a difference in her son, a Lehigh Acres Middle seventh-grader.

“As a parent, to know that you have that support, knowing that you’re going to send your child to school and they are going to be taken care of the way you would want them to be taken care of, is a great feeling,” Rigdon said.

The key, teachers say, is to create a dialogue with students that fosters a relationship and builds a mutual respect and trust. Sometimes, that conversation can reveal the source of trouble and allow the school to treat the root cause of the disciplinary problem, not just the symptom.

“The teacher might not notice that something’s wrong,” Lehigh Acres Middle assistant principal Joseph Restino said. “So all it takes is a student to sit down and say hey … ‘I didn’t eat dinner last night,’ or ‘I didn’t have anything this morning for food.'”

Lehigh Acres Middle eighth-grader E’Quan Rogers has noticed the change.

“This year, teachers, they try to help us more, they want us to be in class,” he said. “They don’t want us to miss out. They don’t want to be the bad guy. They want to help you. They want you to stay in there and learn and do what you’re supposed to do.”

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