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Woodland Hills Suspended Fewer Students By Using A Restorative Model

University of Pittsburgh
Fifth-graders Thomas Medley, left, and Devin Walker study their training materials as they learn to become student leaders at Woodland Hills Intermediate in 2017.

Suspensions among 4th-6th graders are down at Woodland Hills School District. That can be attributed, in part, to a restorative practice program created by the University of Pittsburgh, according to school district administrators. 

The team supporting the work recently released a report reviewing the past two years of the strategy's implementation.

School staff were trained to think of discipline differently. They were asked to find out why students are disruptive rather than remove them from school. Managing behavior relies on community building and conflict resolution instead of suspensions, they found.

The approach has many names: Pittsburgh Public Schools calls it Restorative Practice. Woodland Hills uses Just Discipline, created by Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems.

James Huguley, an assistant professor of social work, said it’s all about building and repairing relationships when there’s a conflict. That mediation often happens in meetings called "circles" that bring the offender and victim together.

“Oftentimes tears were shed, people hug. Because, you know, they've never really been – or haven’t been – exposed enough to ways to peacefully resolve conflict,” he said.

More schools nationally are using similar approaches. Huguley’s team based their work on discipline reforms in Oakland, Calif., Houston, and New York City. He said there is little evidence that taking kids out of school is effective in changing behavior. Often, students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately targeted.

“It's basically a recipe for disaster all around. The challenge is that we have not found an alternative — on a large scale — alternatives that were viable, and useful and ready to be implemented at the school level until recent years,” he said.

While Huguley said no formal policy was issued reflecting a change in disciplinary practices, the message was that suspension would not be the default solution.

“The collaboration with the Just Discipline Program helped to maintain a positive learning environment and gave the staff and teachers a sense of community,” intermediate principal Allison Kline said in a press release.

Individual student suspensions decreased in grades 4, 5 and 6 by 28 percent since 2017.

Pitt received a $450,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments to support programming, training and to hire a school coordinator.

WESA receives funding from the University of Pittsburgh.