LARGO — Gather 23 sixth-graders in a circle and things can get silly. Add a stuffed rabbit toy to pass around, which gives the floor to anyone holding it to talk about what animal they would want to be and why, and it gets awkward.
But Morgan Fitzgerald Middle guidance counselor Lori Taylor knew what she was doing. She used the icebreaker to segue into deeper questions: How have you changed since fifth grade? What's your goal for next semester?
And what was it like to participate in this circle?
Funny, embarrassing, uncomfortable, and, for some, interesting and reaffirming.
And yet nearly every student spoke up: the outspoken, the bashful, the quirky and the too-cool-for-school.
Taylor's visit to the social studies class was just as much for the students as it was for the teacher, Jeremy Huskey, who was interested in learning more about restorative circles.
He saw them as a way to proactively deal with issues among students, like drama lingering over from lunch, and address the matter up front in an open space. He thought the circles could be used for school work, too, like going over a study guide.
"When they get a chance to share, they do it," Huskey said.
Taylor squeezes in time to meet with teachers and spread the gospel of restorative practice, a term the Pinellas County School District has been peddling for two years as a way to address disparities in how it disciplines black and nonblack students. But to see a difference in those numbers, district officials first must get buy-in from its schools to change their culture and approach to discipline.
It's the district's wish that by 2020, there will be a certified restorative practice trainer in every school.
"This is not a magic bullet, having a circle one time," Taylor said. "This is something that has to happen specifically."
In 2015, a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that black students in Pinellas were given out-of-school suspensions at four times the rate of other children. That year, Pinellas' four area superintendents attended a conference called "Rethink Discipline." They came away with ideas, tools and research on how to get the ball rolling.
Restorative practices were "one of the primary tools and initiatives that they had identified as having great potential for reducing that disparity," said area superintendent Bob Poth. "And at the same time creating positive culture in school as a whole."
Restorative practice is not a program, it's an approach, says Johnetta Haugabrook, a district support coach. "It represents ways of interacting with people."
In 2016, four schools piloted restorative practices. One was Gibbs High in St. Petersburg, which had the highest discipline disparity rate in the county, with black students more than seven times as likely as other students to be suspended out of school.
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Principal Reuben Hepburn said he held restorative practice circles in the summer of 2016 with incoming freshmen who had behavioral issues in middle school. He wanted to get to know the students and share his expectations. This year, he has asked his teachers to incorporate restorative circles in their classrooms.
"When it comes to addressing conflict or addressing issues between students, it's something that's going to continue because it's working,'' he said.
The district paid for an instructor from the International Institute for Restorative Practices, an accredited graduate school in Pennsylvania, to teach 12 district employees how to be trainers. Then the district spent close to $160,000 for a training session for 600 educators from 126 schools.
The idea is for the change in culture to trickle down to school-based staff. They all keep in touch in an online message board moderated by Haugabrook, where educators trade best practices and ask for help and support.
At the elementary level, restorative circles are used in morning meetings before the class starts the day. Teachers often pose a question then pass around a toy to hear from students.
"It gives a chance to check in with me, get what they want to say out of the way and give everyone a voice," said Virgina Walker, a second-grade teacher at McMullen-Booth Elementary near Safety Harbor.
Before winter break, educators in the district's teaching and learning department met for a two-day session on how to use restorative circles.
"It's like getting back to the basics," said Angela Lewis, an instructional staff developer with the district's high school reading department. "A lot of it is what I've seen in education for the past 10 years. This may sound small, but the passing piece, the speaking tool, that was probably the newest thing. It helps to balance the team."
Some educators said the training gave support and encouragement to teachers who are often strapped for time.
"It's nice and packaged for a teacher to just take and use tomorrow if they wanted," said Dennis Russo, an administrator working with the district's digital learning team. "And I think that's what teachers are wanting now more than ever … more practical stuff instead of theory."
Haugabrook says there's currently only qualitative data at this point to measure how effective restorative practices are at reducing the discipline disparity. She says the district will determine qualitative metrics in about two years.
Contact Colleen Wright at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.