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Restorative practices play a vital role in San Francisco classrooms

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Principal Joseph Truss, left, and Superintendent Vincent Matthews chat while visiting a sixth grade classroom at Visitacion Valley Middle School during the first day of school on Aug. 21, 2017. (Jessica Christian/2017 S.F. Examiner)

Have you ever been bullied or felt physically threatened? We never want any of our children to experience these things, but we know they do sometimes. At the San Francisco Unified School District, we believe it is part of our job to teach children how to get along and what to do when they are mistreated.

It’s not only part of educating the whole child but also tied to academics. Because when students don’t feel safe and cared for, they are less able to concentrate on learning in school.

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So what do we do when bullying, threats, fights and other serious misbehavior occurs? We make sure students have appropriate consequences.

What’s in a consequence?
Restorative practices are an important part of our approach to student discipline: When a student does something that harms someone else, we ask the student some very specific questions, starting with, “What happened, and what were you thinking at the time?”

We also ask students to talk about what has been hard for them in this situation, and require the student to come up with ways to make things right.

By addressing problems more deeply through restorative practices, we reduce long-term harm by focusing on real consequences, not superficial ones, and repairing relationships, not just isolating offenders.

The appropriate consequences teach youth to understand the impact of their actions and to find ways to repair relationships. It gets them to think about what’s really going on with their thoughts and emotions, so they can make better choices the next time those thoughts and feelings come up.

Don’t get me wrong: Sometimes a child needs to be away from school as a consequence. When necessary, or when it is mandated by state education laws, we suspend or, in a worst-case scenario, expel a student. But kids who are simply suspended for misbehavior miss valuable school time and don’t usually change their behavior when they return to school.

There are consequences for misbehavior, but they are logical consequences designed to help students grow.

Preventing problems
Every staff member at a school has the opportunity to get support and training in restorative practices.

We emphasize the importance of positive relationships in building school community and work to strengthen individual and community relationships by repairing harm when conflict and misbehavior happens.

Is it working?
We’re seeing results: Our students are gaining useful tools for getting along, using those tools and making things better. As a result, more kids report feeling safe at school and get to focus on learning.

Vincent Matthews is superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District.

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