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High school in Burlington to begin new approach to student suspensions

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BURLINGTON, N.C. -- One Piedmont Triad school is changing how it punishes students.

A new program at Williams High School in Burlington focuses on restorative justice. It is a way to let students know they can have a fresh start after being suspended.

Social worker Melinda Willingham has long promoted the approach. She says when students return from suspensions, they often feel disconnected from classmates and a sense of hopelessness.

“We begin to see them shut down in their motivation to complete school work or their motivation to even come to school,” Willingham said.

Williams High School Assistant Principal Robert Drummond liked the idea to help students.

“They have to understand that they can come back from whatever it is that happened,” Drummond said.

He’s now encouraging his staff to become a part of a new voluntary program. Trained staff will mediate students suspended for something like fighting.

“Talk out those differences and get to the root of that fight, what happened and then be able to coexist,” Drummond said.

Staff would also create a plan and work with the child when they return to school.

“Our goal every day is to keep kids in the building, but we can't teach them when they're not here,” Drummond said.

Drummond said the goal is not to completely get rid of suspensions but to teach students a lesson that they can carry with them into adulthood.

“How to be positive and productive members of society when they leave us that can manage their own relationships and manage their own hardships and come out the other side,” Drummond said.

At first, the new program will be for suspended students transitioning back into the classroom. In the future, the school hopes to also incorporate mediation for offenses that are less severe.

“It cultivates a sense of empathy and understanding that a traditional suspension does not allow for,” Willingham said.

The first training on the restorative approach took place about a week ago. So far, there are about 10 staff members on board.

Drummond hopes someday this won’t be a program, it will be a normal way bad behavior is handled in schools.

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