Is RPC working?

Designed to improve equity, and reduce suspensions, restorative practices get mixed results.

The reality of RPC

David Norman rapidly talks into his classroom phone one humid Friday morning.

“A large group of students were standing outside RPC and there was no one in the room so they all left,” Norman says, cupping his hand around the receiver.

While his social studies class silently takes a test, Norman runs back and forth from his phone to the door, attempting to monitor the RPC students who approach the empty classroom, see there is no supervisor, and then saunter off.

By the time an assistant principal arrived at the RPC room 15 minutes into the class period, all of the students who were supposed to be in RPC had already dispersed. To further complicate matters, there is no centralized list of all of the students who are supposed to be in RPC, only the students that attend or are caught in the hallways. As a result, not a single absence is noted in the spreadsheet.

“This happened yesterday too,” Norman said.

The purpose of RPC

The Restorative Practice Center (RPC) is a small, cinderblock room nestled in the entrance of the tech hall. Students sit at desks arranged in jumbled rows, chatting with former RPC coordinator Corey Hairston, scrolling on their phones. 

Restorative Practice is designed to be an alternative to traditional In School Suspension (ISS). Educators, schools, and districts across the country began implementing restorative practices in 2015. 

“Schools across the country are being urged to adopt restorative approaches as an alternative to suspensions, which may disproportionately affect students of color,” writes Laura McLean, who works for the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility and helped implement restorative practices in New York City public schools, in a 2016 article published by Edutopia. “Instead of using punishments and rewards to influence the way students behave, restorative approaches address the underlying reasons for students’ hurtful behavior and nurture their intrinsic desire to treat others with care and respect.”

Disproportionate suspension rates within Durham Public Schools (DPS) was one reason the district began implementing restorative practices. 

While the district’s overall rates of both in-school suspension and out-of-school short-term suspension have been cut in half since RPC was implemented in fall of 2018, (from around 500 students per 1000 to 250), the numbers have remained disproportionate, according to data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Last year at Riverside, Black students were still over 16 times more likely to face in-school suspension than white students, dropping only slightly from 2018 where they were around 21 times more likely.

This graph reflects the number of suspensions at Riverside during the 2017-18 school year. The data is based on number of suspensions, not number of students suspended, so a student may have been suspended multiple times, counting for multiple suspensions on the chart. Graphic by: Eden Richman
This graph reflects the number of suspensions at Riverside during the 2021-22 school year. The data is based on number of suspensions, not number of students suspended, so a student may have been suspended multiple times, counting for multiple suspensions on the chart. Graphic by: Eden Richman

This is part of a larger issue across the country. A study from The Civil Rights Project at UCLA concluded that from federal data from the 2015-2016 Black students in middle and high school were four times as likely to be suspended as white students.

At Riverside, Assistant principal Darryl Bradshaw is responsible for implementing restorative practices. He sees RPC as a place to foster relationships, talk, and reflect. 

“RPC is designed to have conversations about the behavior that caused them to come to RPC,” Assistant Principal Darryl Bradshaw said. “We develop action plans and monitor student behavior to ensure there is a change. Our goal is to restore relationships instead of just punishing students and making them more angry at the school.” 

RPC is meant to work through a collaboration between teachers, administrators, and the district. Teachers use Educators Handbook to document incidents and infractions. Administration reviews the write-ups, and assigns appropriate consequences, including time in RPC which they can assign via the platform. 

Through Educators Handbook, the RPC Coordinator receives a list of students assigned to RPC each day.

The RPC Coordinator runs restorative practices programming and supports students as they complete assignments for their other classes. 

At the end of day, the RPC coordinator sends an attendance report to the entire faculty. 

However, much of this model is not followed.

RPC isn’t actually restorative

Bradshaw and the Riverside administrative team created the “New Restorative Practice Center Daily Schedule.” This schedule consists of eight scheduled blocks of time for programming ranging from a daily writing assignment to a restorative circle, and include activities such as a walk around the track for exercise and an hour to complete assignments for classroom teachers. 

But Hairston, in an interview with The Pirates’ Hook prior to leaving Riverside in March, said students didn’t follow the schedule. 

“The thing about RPC is you can’t make a kid do anything,” he said. “If a kid is failing every class and sits in class and doesn’t do any work, do you really think they will do work in RPC?”

Hairston also said some aspects of the schedule are harder to implement, because students come into RPC at different times throughout the day and some students are more extroverted and willing to talk than others.

“I was in RPC for three days,” said a junior who requested to remain anonymous. “I slept the whole time and did a little work.” 

The student added that there was no scheduled programming, and all he did was sit there.

In lieu of the scheduled programming, in the six to eight hours a day Hairston spent with students, he talked with them and developed relationships. 

“I feel like I’m doing the role of a counselor,” Hairston, who has a degree in psychology from North Carolina A&T, said. “We talk about problems in school and the community, and help them function in class every day. [I try to get] kids to think differently about themselves, their situation, and consequences.” 

Senior Michael Hawley had one period of ISS this year for saying “hands up don’t shoot,” during class. 

“Coach talked to me,” Hawley said. “He told me not everything needed to be said. He talked to other kids, too.”

Environmental Sciences teacher Shaun Thompson is frustrated with the lack of actual restorative practices, and believes this can have a dire effect on the community at large. 

“If administration is going to tout that we have RPC not ISS, then it needs to actually be RPC,” Thompson said in a March 24 interview. “They aren’t doing any conflict resolution, so problems continue to exist and spill over to outside the school as we have seen 5 shootings in the past 48 hours.”

Attendance and Compliance

In lieu of reliable documentation from administrators, department chairs created Google spreadsheets shared with the entire faculty to document which students should be attending RPC on a given day. However, much of the faculty fails to regularly update the spreadsheets, leading to unreliability. 

“Absences and tardies are not always effectively registered through Educators Handbook because administration gives multiple variations on what consequences should be,” Thompson said. 

Bradshaw said that every absence and attendance is tracked through the Educators Handbook. 

“Educators Handbook is far more sophisticated than [the teacher-made spreadsheets],” Bradshaw said. “It communicates with the whole school and district.” 

He went on to explain that the reason teachers made these spreadsheets was to fill the documentation vacuum left by multiple changes in Riverside’s administrative team between 2020-22. 

Another issue with Educator’s Handbook is that the software assigns students in 2 hour long periods, for example from 2-4 pm. This creates complications for students and staff, because these blocks of time do not align with class periods. 

“If a kid gets in trouble for one class, they should be punished for that class, not others,” Hairston said. “And they’re missing out on other classes they need to graduate.”

Inconsistent enforcement

In addition to racial inequities, teachers report a lack of uniform punishments and actual enforcement of consequences.

“Administration has assigned consequences, [but] when students don’t do anything there is no follow up,” Thompson said.

This is especially evident in the enforcement of lunch detentions, which can be assigned for infractions ranging from two tardies to cutting class.

In one case, a student who asked to remain anonymous was given lunch detention for roaming the hallways during his class.

“No way missing 20 minutes of class is worse than the punishment for skipping,” he said.

So, he opted not to attend his designated lunch detention period.

“I have absolutely no incentive to serve lunch detention,” the student said. “The risk to reward is just none. One period of lunch in exchange for nothing versus just doing what I want.”

He never faced any consequences for skipping lunch detention.

“Currently, students are very aware there is no follow through if they don’t attend lunch detention or RPC for a period or RPC for the day,” English teacher Mira Prater said. “In the past, we would receive an email from a secretary or the RPC coordinator with a list of students who were expected to be in RPC the next day. Teachers would know how to deliver work to students and who would be in RPC. When a student didn’t serve in RPC, the RPC coordinator would write up those students and those students would still have to face the consequence for whatever landed them in RPC.”

This system also helped to ensure that students were facing the same punishments for the same infractions. Now, according to data Prater shared from her English classes, students are assigned vastly different consequences for incidents of cutting class.

“[There is] huge inequity in student consequences,” Prater said. “And if students didn’t attend RPC or lunch detentions, even after I followed up with admin about it, there were no consequences for not attending.”

Small infractions are not the only incidents that garner unequal repercussions. 

An anonymous junior shared that he got into a physical fight on a school bus with a female student his sophomore year, and was initially told that he would have to face a five-day out of school suspension, the district-wide policy for acts of violence. However, it was the week before finals, so instead he was assigned one day of in school suspension.

These cases cannot always be exclusively attributed to failures with documentation.

Norman wrote up somewhere between 50 and 100 students last school year. He has stopped writing students up because consequences are either insignificant, e.g. a call home, not enforced, or referred to MTSS, which is currently dormant at Riverside.

“I only wrote up one student this year for egregious attendance and behavioral issues,” Norman said. 

He went on to explain that this student got into a fight where she broke someone’s nose while she was skipping lunch detention. 

I sopped up her blood during a smart lunch in my classroom,” Norman said. “This is a concrete example of why we need to know where students are during the day when they aren’t serving lunch detentions or RPC.”  

She was then assigned out-of-school suspension. When she was re-enrolled in class she accumulated more RPC time on top of the detentions she hadn’t served.

“I wrote her up for skipping 4 of the 45 absences she had that semester, and for 4 of her 14 tardies,” Norman said. “She has not served her RPC assignment from before OSS and she has not served any of my assigned lunch detentions. An administrator addressed this write up 26 days later. The consequence: “called parent.”

“Because there were no consequences the student subsequently continued to skip,” he said. “Moreover, she was then caught on video for theft of property from an adult in the building, was assigned RPC, but did not serve that either.”

Norman and other teachers refer to students like this as having “diplomatic immunity,” because they face no real consequences for their actions due to breakdowns within the system.

Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) is not fully established

Sometimes, in severe cases, students are referred to the Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS). However, this creates a unique set of challenges. 

“Another issue is that MTSS is not truly set up in the building,” Bradshaw said. 

MTSS stands for Multi-Tiered System of Support.

“MTSS is a multi-tiered framework which promotes school improvement through engaging research-based academic and behavioral practices,” the Durham Public Schools website reads. “NC MTSS employs a systems-approach using data-based problem-solving to maximize growth for ALL.”

The goal is ultimately to to “sustain a Multi- Tiered System of Support through the provision of professional development, coaching, technical assistance, and resources” the website says. 

“Students are referred to MTSS, but MTSS is not enforced in the building,” Norman said. 

Thompson agreed, saying that the lack of MTSS presence has become an issue with our new administration.

“Pre going virtual had an excellent MTSS system and very regulated consequences that were enforced by administration,” Thompson said. He no longer believes that is the case.

Staffing Issues

Riverside’s veteran teachers have seen several different versions of the RPC center since its inception in fall of 2018 (prior to 2018, it was called “In-School Suspension”). Many believe its effectiveness hinges on the person running the room.

During Math Teacher Christy Simpson’s 16 years long tenure at Riverside, she has seen several different administrations, and with it, many different attitudes towards RPC.

“The concept of RPC in theory is a good idea. When used effectively it is a great tool to manage student behavior,” said math teacher Christy Simpson. “This year, I have not seen it used as effectively as in years past.”

Simpson attributes this to Steve Foster’s retirement in 2019.

“Things have not been the same since we lost Mr. Foster,” Simpson said. “He was an anchor for that program. I don’t know where the disconnect is.”

Indeed, since Foster’s departure rates of in school suspension have decreased.

Under RPC’s new leadership, the culture within the program has changed as well. 

“The administrators had to call me anytime they were gonna place a kid,” Foster said. “I tried to keep the number somewhere between 12 and 15. There were certain rules about being there.”

Since Foster’s retirement, every single member of the administration team has turned over.

“The most important thing about running RPC is having support from your administrators,” he explained. “And it’s hard to have a successful program if you don’t have the academic support coming into the room every day, not just where a teacher gives a folder and every time they come down. That’s not the way it is now.”

Thompson agreed. 

“Currently I have seen RPC students wandering the halls and consistently being let out at the end of the day early,” he said. “They aren’t given any actual restorative practices nor even often told to do their work. I have seen them doing TikTok dances on their phones.”

Bradshaw acknowledged this year’s RPC was not ideal, and attributed the challenges to issues with staffing and new administration. He says the administration is working to make changes for RPC next year.

 Aside from physical changes, like painting the room and rearranging the chairs to make the room appear more welcoming, Bradshaw plans on working to implement actual restorative practices that will address the root of the social and emotional issues that land students in RPC.

As for now, following Hairston’s resignation, principal intern Bryan Garnett will take over RPC’s daily supervision, or students assigned to RPC will stay with administrators. A new RPC coordinator has already been hired, and will take over by June. 

 “RPC is going to look new next year,” Bradshaw said. “We’re giving it a face-lift.”

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