Tim Turley says he was generally well-behaved as a child, though he did once utter "something nasty" in class and suffer the punishment: having his mouth washed out with soap and water. Asked if this sudsy discipline was effective, he offers a single-word answer: "No."
As an adult, Turley has helped wean Denver Public Schools off punitive discipline models, replacing suspensions and expulsions with a process meant to build empathy and relationships, while teaching kids true accountability. With Turley as DPS' restorative justice director, the district has gone from about 16,000 suspensions and over 250 expulsions in 2005 to just 6,300 suspensions and 67 expulsions last school year. Turley has been using restorative justice in Denver classrooms for 15 years — and put the practices to work in every DPS school several years ago.
"It's so simple it's pathetic," Turley says of the program.
In DPS, most kids who act up are taken outside the class by a teacher and asked a series of questions. At the heart of the conversation is an effort to do two things: help the kid understand what he did wrong and who he hurt, and let the child help come up with an idea for how to repair the harm done.
But restorative justice looks different depending on the district implementing it, and more districts are getting involved in it these days. It's been used in schools in Colorado Springs School District 11 and Manitou Springs School District 14 for years, and D-11's Board of Education just allocated $52,000 to train staff in three more schools in the practices.
Mary Lewis, D-11's assistant director of the Office of Student Discipline Services, has long been a restorative-justice proponent and says it's worked well at the two schools that have used it: Palmer High School and North Middle School. Both schools had staff and leadership that took on restorative justice and started the programs independently.
Lewis says those programs deserve part of the credit for the 38 percent decrease in expulsions in the district this school year, compared to last school year. It's a much-needed shift: In the 2012-13 school year, D-11 topped the state for expulsions, having kicked out 182 kids.
The school board's approval of additional funding will go to training staff and teachers at Coronado High School and West Elementary and Middle schools. Trainings begin this month and will be handled by the Youth Transformation Center, a local nonprofit. President Jeannette Holtham says schools usually use restorative justice to manage interpersonal conflicts; major infractions like bringing drugs or weapons to school are still handled the old-fashioned way.
But state Rep. Pete Lee, who's shepherded numerous restorative justice bills through the legislature since 2011, says he's seen the practices work for serious offenses as well. He remembers a ninth-grader who brought a pellet gun to school. In a conference, it was revealed that the boy hadn't known he had the weapon in his bag. (His brother had stored it there without telling him.) Still, the boy agreed to make up for the scare he had caused by putting on a presentation to younger kids about violence in schools, bullying and sexual harassment.
"He started off by saying — and I'll never forget this," Lee recalls, "'I made a really big mistake in school, but instead of kicking me out, they asked if I would come over here and talk to you.'"
Serena Vogel, a counselor at Manitou Springs Middle School, started using restorative justice techniques about a decade ago. She says she's focused a lot on conferences — bringing together the victim, the offender, community members, parents, a school staffer, and a facilitator or two. Together, in a process that can take hours, they've discussed what has gone wrong, how they feel, and how to repair the situation. Few kids who have gone through the programs have reoffended, Vogel says.
Vogel remembers one incident in particular. An eighth-grade girl hit a sixth-grade boy, leading to a bloody nose. When Vogel suggested a conference to handle the incident, the parents of both kids were skeptical — they supported their own child. But at the end of the conference, the parents were very much on the same page.
"They said, 'I think we need to get together as families and have dinner,'" Vogel remembers. "It was like, 'Whoa, didn't see that coming.'"
Vogel doesn't host restorative justice conferences often nowadays, though, instead relying on a quicker version involving a few questions posed to the offending child. One reason is because "things have changed in our school ... and discipline is way down." Also, though, she's had less time to devote to conferences. Restorative justice, she says, takes a lot of staff time and administrative backing. Ultimately, it can be tough to maintain without the central support and funding that a district like DPS provides.
But she says she hopes more districts consider offering that kind of funding. She calls restorative justice "a beautiful process," one that changes those who go through it.
"They've learned something very valuable about empathy," she says, "and how to think about what they're doing — how that may impact someone else."