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Virginia Schools Take Steps to Implement Restorative Practices

Educators using "proactive circles" in the classroom
Educators using "proactive circles" in the classroom say that it builds trust, community, student leadership and is a foundation for restorative justice practices. (Photo by Ram Bhagat) Ram Bhagat

Across the country, schools are examining high numbers of suspensions and seeking new ways to build a positive school climate. A growing number of districts, including those in Virginia, are training their staff in restorative practices. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Learning Curve.

Learn More: Listen to part one of our series on the scope and impact of suspensions, find a toolkit and more resources on proactive circles and other restorative practices, read about a new bill in DC to limit school suspensions, and learn about the district-wide restorative justice project in Fairfax County.


Melodie Henderson asks a roomful of educators to grab their chairs and form a circle. It’s more of an oval, but that’s okay, says Henderson. There’s no furniture or obstacles in the way, everyone can see each other. The purpose, she says, is to feel connected.

Melodie Henderson: We have now established the physical parameters of our community.

Henderson is demonstrating a “proactive circle,” an activity she uses with students in Chesterfield County. She grabs what’s called a talking piece. It could be any object. For this warm-up activity, she uses a small ball.

Henderson: When the ball is tossed to you, what I want you to do is simply introduce yourself by your first name only and one positive attribute that you see in yourself.

The group laughs as the first toss goes astray, then one-by-one people share a little bit about themselves. One is organized, another is dedicated.

Stephanie and I am thoughtful…
Rickie and I am resilient…

Henderson facilitated this workshop at the annual Virginia Education Association professional development conference. When working with a new group of students, Henderson starts with “Level 1,” matter-of-fact questions, like What’s your favorite ice cream? The next level elicits opinions, so they’re getting more comfortable with getting personal. The third level she calls “bare my soul.” She shares an example:

Henderson: Who is someone that you missed that is longer here that you wish were here and that takes people into some really deep feelings and emotions, and that's the type of question you can ask to support your students. I had a student a couple years ago who during his enrollment with us, he lost his sister, his sister passed away from cancer. And even though the group as a whole was not ready for that, they took a risk and they supported him and they connected with him on that level. And when he went with me to co-facilitate with another class, he openly shared with that group that had just met how his peers and his circle had had supported him and gotten him through one of the most difficult times in his life.

Henderson says proactive circles build social capital in the classroom and develop student leaders. And they build a foundation for “restorative justice” which can use circles as a way to resolve conflict.

Henderson: In our program, there was a lot of nitpicking, age appropriate behaviors or conflicts-- that has reduced. Students asked to have a restorative circle, they want that guidance, they want to have that solution-focused opportunity, and they utilize it, they grow from it. Some, they'll come back and say hey that didn't work, I need to have another circle, I want to follow up with what we discussed. Every restorative circle ends with how each individual affected is going to take steps to heal or correct the situation, how can they move forward. Where do we go from here? How do we move forward? And it gives them both opportunities to make peace and often... they really connect and become closer and it over at least that situation and more understanding of the situation that they had the conflict over then they would not in other situations. We have less conflict among our students.

Henderson and other Chesterfield teachers were trained in restorative practices about four years ago, and she’s now a proactive circles coach. Henrico County has also trained about 15 people in restorative practices and facilitating circles, including counselors, social workers, and central office staff. These local initiatives are part of a nationwide effort that’s examining high rates of suspensions and seeking alternatives. Data shows suspensions in many districts disportionately affect students of color and those with disabilities. Suspensions can lead to a greater risk of dropping out; a 2016 economic analysis found estimated that suspensions cost the U.S. $35 billion a year. Another study traced 17,000 students over three years, and found high rates of suspensions negatively affected test scores of those who weren’t suspended.

Dr. Ram Bhagat: Restorative justice is really out of an indigenous framework, and it's been adapted in the West to address issues in criminal justice and now starting to kind of spread into education and other areas.

Longtime Richmond educator Dr. Ram Bhagat says Restorative Justice can take different approaches and use varied practices, like the elementary school in Baltimore that uses meditation instead of detention. Sometimes it involves private “conferences” bringing together those who were harmed with the aggressor, a mediator, teachers and parents.

Bhagat: Sometimes people look at it like it could be letting the person off the hook, but it really doesn't let the person off the hook. It actually puts them on more hooks because more people are involved and making sure that that person is not thrown away, they’re integrated into the community. I’ve seen it work in situations as maybe basic as an argument between students to someone who's been involved in a felony or or even a capital crime, so it can have some transformative outcomes, but it's really about changing our mindset and how we interact with each other as a community or in community.

Bhagat taught science in public schools for more than 30 years. In the early ‘90s, he put together the “African Males” program to help develop teens social, emotional and resiliency skills.

Bhagat: It was really focused on providing them with the self-discipline, self-awareness, stress resilience to deal with a very challenging, gifted advanced curriculum and it was an amazing program that really help them tap into their human resources and going on to achieve amazing things.

The founder of Drums No Guns also works with the Richmond Peace Education Center to train youth in conflict resolution and resiliency. Now he’s developing a pilot program with Richmond Public Schools. Funded through the Kellogg Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation initiative, it’s a multi-year project currently in phase one, training students at Armstrong high school.

Bhagat: Where they can become involved in sort of a peer-to-peer practice where older students who get training in conflict resolution, trauma awareness and restorative practices can work with their younger peers with the guidance of mentors and teachers. We're also looking at identifying a certain number of teachers in the school that sort of have this social capital with the students, but also have this interest and this enthusiasm about learning about restorative, trauma-informed approaches and getting them some more in-depth training. And then working up to the school administrators.

Komp: With the circles, is that something any teacher can do, what kind of training do they need and what kind of impact does that have on building the larger framework for restorative practices?

Bhagat: That's always a question teachers ask about time, in terms of like what they're expected to get through but to be honest, time can be a friend or time can be an enemy for teachers. Because if the students are not engaged or if the classroom is chaotic then what's time? You're losing time. You're not teaching, you’re not instructing, but putting the time into creating that that space where students, for the most part don't have any say in the rules that affect them, their voices are generally ignored or stifled. So the circle is an investment of creating a safe space where students have an outlet to communicate, share their feelings, share their ideas and also build a culture within the classroom where they can hold each other accountable, and that's worth the investment in terms of having a time to stay on task so to speak. But then also things come up in a community or things come up in the national media that have profound traumatic effects on students like when they see a police shooting or when a friend a shot or it could be any number of things that just have that sort of blank traumatic impact on us as a community. A circle is a perfect way to allow the students to address that and the power of the circle is that the circle really taps into the collective wisdom of the group. S yes, I think teachers need training, but they don't have to be social workers, they don't have to be licensed psychologists, anybody can facilitate a circle.

Bhagat says academics, community members and city administration also have a role to play.

Bhagat: This is going to require a massive effort. I call it Massive Resilience, to counteract the effects of trauma and racially and economically segregated schools, but also in schools across. the board period-- I think it trauma is something that connects us on a universal level. Teachers are becoming more aware of it, administrators are becoming more aware of it. It's like the crucible where we can create change or we can create some transformative change because once teachers are powered through knowing more about the impact of trauma on learning and then also how to use restorative practices to strengthen the relationships in their classroom then we can improve and enhance academic achievement for all students and close the achievement gap.

Bhagat points to Fairfax County Schools, which started a restorative justice project a decade ago that expanded to working with police and the juvenile court system. Carla Okouchi is a music teacher in the district. She’s concerned about the inequities in suspensions and breaking the cycle of the “school to prison pipeline.”

Carla Okouchi: I’m seeing kind of that shift even in my own county. At Mosby Woods Elementary School, we have this year implemented a room where students can go if they're in a traumatic scenario or they just need to decompress and so the staff created different tools that they could use and manipulate just to help them calm down and get them ready to go back and be productive learners within the classroom. We spent one of our professional development days creating these tools to use within our own spaces, so I have a whole basket full of things that they can so they can squeeze or they can look at to help them calm down.

Okouchi says she has close to 30 students at a time, and things can get rowdy. But she’s noticed a difference since she started this new approach.

Okouchi: Students come with their baggage, the things that happened before school or in their morning before they come to me and at times they do need to take a break and it's their choice. Sometimes I can ask him to go take a break and come down, other times they choose and they go to the basket and they find whatever object will help them kind of calm down and think about how they can contribute to the class as a whole. And I've had lots of teachers come to me and just share they notice a difference having that time for students who are really struggling in the classroom, when they come to music how more focused and ready to change their own emotions and behaviors, and how the rest of the day is more successful.

Restorative justice practices take time, funding, commitment and community-buy in, says Bhagat. And he says, they are powerful tools outside the classroom too.

Bhagat: Being in that human connection is a lot more powerful probably than people give it credit for. And you know some people might think it's like the soft fuzzy thing, but I see it more as a way where the human spirit can connect and become strong and supportive of individuals in that circle. Even before drum circles were called drum circles, when we used to do drumming in a circle, it’s synergistic, it's greater than the sum of its parts.

Bhagat led a workshop at the recent VEA conference co-created with Dr. Regina Hopkins called on “A Trauma Informed Restorative Approach to School Discipline.” He brought his drum and led the group in a grounding exercise before the session began. Bhagat says this is another important element in the work he does with students, teachers and the community.

Bhagat: It doesn't matter whether I’m at an underperforming school in Southeast DC, or a gifted and talented school, or a Governor's School, or Yale University or the streets of Richmond, or the streets of New Haven, Connecticut, DC or New York, the drum has always been able to bring people together in a way that opens up the door to utilize restorative practices and trauma-informed practices and conflict resolution.

After our previous segment examining the suspension statistics and demographics, we heard from a few listeners who want to hear more, what teachers do to create a “functional” classroom, the costs of suspensions to the Commonwealth and what the state is doing to respond to the issue. We’ll be looking into these topics and you can send us questions and ideas to learningcurve at ideastations dot org. For Learning Curve, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.