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Lynchburg City Schools turns suspensions into solutions

A teacher walks around a room where students are engaged in computer work.
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Instead of serving out-of-school suspension at home, Lynchburg students attend the Restorative Suspension Center to serve their short-term suspension, which can last up to 10 days.

The Restorative Suspension Center focuses on conflict resolution, repairing past harm and healing relationships.

When Lynchburg City Schools students enter the Restorative Suspension Center, they know expectations are high.

For the past year, the school division has taken a new approach to discipline. Typically, when a student is suspended, they’re sent home. But LCS said students now serve suspensions at RSC — inside the Amelia Pride House, next to Dunbar Middle School for Innovation.

“Eighty percent of the time, when a student comes [to the Restorative Suspension Center], they don't return. So, that's much better than the 60% that we were seeing that were continuing to get resuspended,” said Derrick Brown, LCS director of student services. “Only 10% of the time, students are returning for the same offense, whereas before they were being suspended over and over for the same behaviors and the same referrals.”

RSC opened in February 2023 as part of LCS Restore, holistic programming designed to empower students to succeed academically and emotionally through restorative practices.

At RSC, students are engaged in all-day programming that helps them complete their classwork, so they don’t fall behind their cohort in traditional classrooms. The center also focuses on resolving conflict, repairing harm and healing relationships.

Every morning, Robere Sandifer, a restorative interventionist at LCS, sets the tone in his classroom by playing relaxing music, greeting each student and enforcing a cell-phone free policy.

Sandifer is a Lynchburg native who’s had experiences similar to many of his students.

“I got suspended. I came from a broken home and everything,” Sandifer said. “I always tell them that you can use your past as an anchor to weigh you down the rest of your life or you can use it as stepping stones.”

Jerett Martin, the center’s coordinator, frequently leads students in “a circle” — a fundamental tool in restorative practices. They serve as structured forms of dialogue, and promote healing and conflict resolution.

“I think these restorative practices are going back to baseline respect, accountability [and] just being a good productive citizen to make the world a better place,” Martin said.

In the circle, Martin sets boundaries and guidelines that can be applied to the classroom and home-life balance. He then works with students to develop a game plan for when they return to their base school.

“Some students just want you to do small check-ins with them and bring them treats or rewards because they've been doing so well,” Martin said. “Sometimes we do 21-day challenges, where we reward the students for being [present] for 21 days and working on some habits that they may need to break.”

The school system has also partnered with a Danville human services organization, Life Push, that comes to the restorative center each day to hold group sessions. Life Push uses its “5 Phases of Human Engagement,” which aims to facilitate supportive and effective conversations.

Brown said the program’s success stems from it holding students accountable — while also imparting an important message.

“We don't just throw them away. It's important for them to be restored and for them to have people that care about them. They need to know that when they make a mistake or they mess up, it doesn't mean that they're a bad student,” Martin said. “It just means that they made a mistake. And we're all humans, we make mistakes. But we should always grow from those mistakes, and we should learn and we should get better. ”

Lynchburg City Schools is planning to expand its restorative programs, which are funded through $10 million in federal and state grants, according to a school spokesperson.

Aside from the Restorative Suspension Center, it has academies focused on holistic growth by providing intensive behavior intervention and social-emotional learning for elementary and secondary students.

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