SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Out-of-school suspensions are on the rise across the country. Now, that's a troubling statistic if you consider that being suspended just once increases a student's chances of dropping out entirely. So, many districts have turned to alternatives to suspension. From Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, Jennifer Guerra reports.
JENNIFER GUERRA, BYLINE: We're in the conflict resolution room at Ypsilanti High School. It's quiet, sparse. Just a small couch, some chairs, a plant. For decoration, there are a few homemade posters with drawings of shooting stars and signs with slogans like: Together We Can and Think Before You Speak. This is where you go if you're on the verge of being suspended.
DERRION REEVES: This room is where you come in with problems, and leave with no problems.
GUERRA: That's 17-year-old Derrion Reeves. Outside this room, he's a senior. Inside this room, he's a peer mediator. If two students come in with some kind of conflict, it's his job to help them work through it. Everything from problems between boyfriends and girlfriends, to dealing with friendships that have gone astray. That's how 16-year old Morgan ended up here. Morgan, whose last name the school asked us not to use, is a shy, quiet girl and she seems like the last person who would get into a brawl. But one of her so-called friends started to spread rumors that she was going to beat up Morgan after school one day. So, the two girls ended up here, in this room, sitting face to face with a peer mediator.
MORGAN: I came in here thinking that things weren't going to change because I knew the person that she was, and when I left I actually felt that we were going to become friends.
GUERRA: Peer mediation is used more as a prevention tactic to stop conflicts before they get too serious. But if a fight is about to break out or already has, that's when Margaret Rohr uses something called restorative justice. Rohr runs the conflict resolution room at the high school.
MARGARET ROHR: Restorative practices basically establish a complete paradigm shift from traditional discipline.
GUERRA: With traditional discipline, the focus is on rules and punishment. Break rule X, get punishment Y. With restorative practices, the focus is on harm done and relationships. Let's say somebody starts a fight in the hall, which is definite grounds for suspension. Margaret Rohr will round up everyone who was harmed by the fight and have them participate in a restorative circle. The student who caused the harm has to listen as one by one he hears how his actions impacted those around him. Now, the student may still be suspended, but...
MARA SCHIFF: It works because youth are empowered to take responsibility for their own behavior, to be held accountable for their own behavior and to make it right.
GUERRA: Mara Schiff is a professor at Florida Atlantic University and has worked in the restorative justice field for nearly two decades. She says schools in at least 20 states have started to incorporate restorative justice practices in their school discipline policies. And while there isn't a ton of data on how effective it is, she says what's out there is pretty positive.
SCHIFF: We're seeing decreases in suspensions and expulsion rates and disciplinary referrals.
GUERRA: At Ypsilanti High School, suspensions have already decreased by about 10 percent since it started using restorative justice last fall. One 14-year old freshman at the school is a huge restorative justice fan now. But she wasn't always. Cheyenne admits she has a bit of a temper, and has a few suspensions under her belt already. When she and some girlfriends were ready to come to blows, they were marched down the conflict resolution room.
CHEYENNE: I think it's easier to talk about it when you have another party involved that doesn't really know what's going on and isn't picking favorites.
GUERRA: Cheyenne says the combination of restorative circles and peer mediation has made her calmer, less quick to judge. And, thanks to the conflict resolution room, she hasn't been suspended since. For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Guerra.