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A New Approach to Regulating Student Behavior in School

Third-grade teacher Sara Wilder leading her class
Robbie Feinberg/Maine Public
Third-grade teacher Sara Wilder leads her class in a "community circle" at Loranger Memorial School in Old Orchard Beach.

Studies show young people in Maine have been exposed to some of the nation’s highest rates of adverse childhood experiences, such as drug abuse and violence at home. In schools, those experiences often lead to problems as students act out and are punished. One town in southern Maine is trying to change its approach to discipline and possibly change the community as well.

Vice Principal George Shabo is a commanding presence here at Loranger Memorial School in Old Orchard Beach. He’s big, with a booming voice. But he’s not just barking orders he actually yells out compliments as he walks through the hallway.

“Hey nice hat!” he shouts out to one student. “I like that hat.”

“You are on fire,” he tells another young boy, who chuckles.”

It wasn’t always so here in Old Orchard Beach. The discipline policies at Loranger were once very traditional — if you did something bad, you got punished. But three years ago, the community realized this wasn’t working. Students in this largely low-income, transient town were getting in trouble.

“You get arrested in town for public intoxication, any other kind of loitering, underage drinking, we have a lot of that,” Shabo says. “Substance abuse in public. Stealing.”

So the schools, the courts and law enforcement gathered together to form a Juvenile Community Review Board, which decided to embrace something called “restorative practices”. The idea is to forgo punishment in favor of making a connection.

At Loranger Middle School, these practices take the form of three levels of “circles.” This one, in teacher Sara Wilder’s 3rd grade classroom, is a weekly community circle, intended to help the class communicate.

On this day, wilder is leading a discussion with a student named Kasim about his experience as the classroom’s “line leader,” meaning he has the responsibility of leading the class to and from the cafeteria. Kasim says the job has been a little hard, because a lot of the students behind him talk. Wilder continues to prod. How does that make you feel, she asks?

“Frustrated? Angry? Annoyed?” Wilder asks. “Annoyed. It makes the line leader feel annoyed when people in line are talking behind them, because they’re not following the rules, right?”

Wilder follows up with a question — how should the class solve this problem?

“So Kasim, what do you want people to do next week?” she asks. “Try to not talk in line. Do you think as a class we can do this? Try to not talk in line?” [The class nods their head and agrees.]

Wilder says it can occasionally feel silly to ask students to pass around a talking stick and share feelings. It’s almost like going back to preschool. But students say the circles, which are used in almost every classroom from 3rd grade through 8th grade, feel like a safe space.

“I would probably say I feel good to express my feelings to other classmates,” says seventh-grader Alex Hodgkins. “There’s also this rule, what happens in the circle stays in the circle. So if you want to say something that you don’t want many people knowing, that’s a good rule for the circle.”

And the communication at Loranger doesn’t end here. When two students have a conflict, say, around bullying, they’ll ask for a “problem-solving circle,” where they meet with school staff and talk through their problem. And if a kid does get into trouble, the school rarely will use an out-of-school suspension. Instead, it will put that student into a “restorative room”, where they talk about what they did and how they can make the situation right. Cynthia Robbins, the school’s behavioral specialist, says the idea of all this is to give students a voice, so they can feel more engaged in school. She cites one case that happened last year, in which an eighth-grader kept falling asleep in class.

“And what he reported to me is that in his home last night, he didn’t have any heat,” Robbins says. “And so he didn’t sleep. So by the time he got to school, got his breakfast here at the school because we feed the kids every morning, and was in a warm, safe, comfortable place, he was tired and could fall asleep. These kids are coming from really rough scenarios in their lives. And it’s important to recognize that. That that function in their behavior, that why they’re acting the way they’re acting stems from something.”

Loranger isn’t the first Maine school to embrace restorative practices. For more than a decade, professionals have been training teachers across Maine on the practices. One trainer estimates he’s worked with at least 2,000 teachers. It’s only recently, however, that schools such as Loranger have taken a school-wide approach. In fact, the RAND Corporation recently received a grant to conduct the first study looking at the practices in 14 Maine schools.

Loranger Assistant Principal George Shabo says this mindset can’t fix every problem, particularly more severe cases.

“We’re never there, in my mind,” Shabo says. “We always have to practice. Always.”

But the limited data show that the climate is improving. Detentions at Loranger went from about 30 two years ago down to zero last year. And according to state data, the number of behavioral incidents at Loranger fell by almost 80% from 2011 to 2013.

Behavioral Specialist Cynthia Robbins says the positive effects could be felt beyond the classroom. She says students across Maine are exposed to drug abuse, alcoholism and domestic violence at home from a young age. She sees restorative practices as a way to help stop that cycle.

“Bad parenting creates more bad parenting, which creates more bad parenting. Over and over again,” Robbins says. “And I think overall in our society, we’ve seen that deterioration. And I’m hopeful that this kind of structure can help us with that. And I think people look more and more to the schools now to get that.”

Other statewide experts say restorative practices can’t be the only solution, but can play a role in helping to affect community change.