School board reviews bullying and restorative justice practices

“Providing students the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, foster a positive learning community and keep students in school”

By Kendra Walker

The Gunnison Watershed School District school board held a work session on Monday, October 30 to learn about and discuss the district’s policies on bullying and restorative practices.

Superintendent Dr. Leslie Nichols invited administrators from each school to help respond to recent parent concerns regarding bullying brought up to the school board, and highlight the hard work being done at each school to handle unexpected student behavior. 

“We are here to grow better humans,” said Nichols. “When a kid doesn’t know how to read, we teach them how to read. When a kid doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach them how to multiply. That concept really applies well to behaviors. When they don’t know how to behave as we expect, we teach them how to behave.”

Nichols shared an overview of the district’s current policies per Colorado State Law, which support and encourage the use of restorative justice as a school’s first consideration to remediate offenses such as bullying and conflicts. The Safe Schools Act requires policies that “include plans for the appropriate use of prevention, intervention, restorative justice, peer mediation, counseling or other approaches to address student misconduct, which approaches are designed to minimize student exposure to the criminal and juvenile justice system.”

“Colorado moves away from zero tolerance policies,” she said. “We really are charged by the legislation in Colorado by providing students the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, foster a positive learning community and keep students in school.”

From those laws, the district has several policies for student conduct and student discipline, with varying interventions related to inappropriate behavior depending on the circumstances of an individual case.

“Sometimes we do respond with harsh consequences because sometimes behaviors absolutely require that,” said Nichols. “And while those types of consequences can provide some potential satisfaction for someone who has been harmed, they are so limited in the long game.”

Nichols explained that the district’s restorative practices are all about addressing the root cause of bad behavior. “Approaching behavior from a restorative approach is very much about setting expectations and having boundaries and being clear about those limits and then responding when behavior is outside the limits. We have this broader view of these children, and we are here to assist them in becoming great adults in our society.” 

“We expect there to be unexpected behavior, our job is to try to figure out where it falls in this realm of unexpected behavior,” said Gunnison Middle School principal Lance Betts, explaining the difference between bullying, conflict, meanness and harassment. “When we get a report of bullying, we look for three things: Is the behavior targeted? Is it repetitive? Is there some kind of imbalance of power?”

Betts said administration looks at those things very carefully and gives each student and their parents the opportunity to express their concern. “Most of the situations we deal with are fairly complex,” he said. “We determine what was the behavior, where does it fall, and put together a package of actions and supports to make sure both students are feeling supported.”

Betts explained that restorative practices are about playing the long game and giving the student that caused the harm the ability to repair that harm. He said restorative practice doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t also a consequence. “We want to make sure there is a clear line that this is unacceptable behavior.”

Betts also noted that the students would often rather take the suspension. “Apologizing is way harder than taking the suspension. But let’s do some extra work to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Gunnison High School principal Jim Woytek noted that so much of the student conflict happens outside the school day. “We don’t have the ability to police that all the time. We as adults have the opportunity and obligation outside of school to teach children. Schools can’t do it alone… we have to have great partnerships with parents and community organizations.”

“People expect a lot out of our schools. I personally think we need to expect more out of our parents,” said board member Dave Taylor. “Restorative justice is great, but we need to demand more out of our parents.”

“In an ideal situation, there’s a consequence and a meeting with the parents and we get their support,” agreed Woytek. “But far more often than I would hope, we have students who don’t have a person there to be a support or don’t have the tools because they’ve never gone through something like this. We have to meet families, adults and kids where they are. That’s why we partner with other organizations that can help families in ways to find solutions to challenges they’re facing. I do believe that people want to engage and want to do what’s best for their kids.”

Crested Butte Elementary School principal Sally Hensley said that the administration is focused on building a positive school culture through programs like Seek the Peak and Titan Traits. 

“These programs really focus on building relationships in a positive school culture. We’re making sure there’s a really strong sense of belonging for our students and there’s open discussion in classrooms and kids know they’re welcome here. We want to support kids to stay in the classroom and manage these conflicts before they explode into more serious issues.”

Hensley continued, “Often, children’s behavior reflects their lived experience and we’re in a time right now where there’s a lot of conflict out there in the nation and in the world and on our social media. It’s important our students understand that and the impact it can have on others.”

“What’s really important for people to understand is this is our job and it’s our passion and we do it every single day,” said Crested Butte Secondary School principal Ernie Kothe. “Relationships are the cornerstone of school safety. We as leaders create a culture where students know they are safe.”

“And so much of the work we do is invisible,” noted Nichols. “We can’t always tell someone who has been harmed all the work that has been done with the person who harmed their child,” said Nichols, referring to privacy and confidentiality around bullying situations. “It can be very frustrating if you’re the parents of the child that has been harmed to feel like you don’t really know what the school has done, if anything. Often it is not very detailed but that doesn’t mean the work is not being done every day, all day long. Every single one of these cases has had our full attention, and every child gets due process, and investigations are thorough, and parents are communicated with and involved.” 

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