HIGH POINT, N.C. (WGHP) — Educators in Guilford County are changing the way kids are disciplined to get them back on track after three years of uncertainty. 

They’re focusing on connecting with students on an individual level to better address their learning needs.

“There’s a dramatic difference between pandemic, pre-pandemic and post-pandemic,” said Mike Hittenbach, principal of High Point Central High School. “[Students] were so locked down on their phones and computers, and a lot of that stuff influenced them and not always in a good way.”

Those bad influences show up in the discipline numbers across Guilford County Schools. 

During the 2018-19 school year, there were 6,754 short-term suspensions according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. The number jumped in the 2021-22 school year to 7,550.

Administrators at HPCHSl saw the troubling trend and decided to shift the narrative.

“Is there a need for therapy, mental health? Is there a need for a restorative circle with others … You find out there are hunger issues and domestic violence,” Hittenbach said. “How can you penalize a student when there are other factors in their life?”

They started by changing the in-school suspension space to a restoration station with more accountability so students continued to learn.

“Our behavior interventionist is saying … ‘What did you do?’ They do social and emotional learning strategies to say … ‘This is a behavior that you did, but these are some of the strategies that you could have done,'” said Kathryn Lutterloh, assistant principal at HPCHS.

Lutterloh watched a student change her attendance issues after sitting down and having a deep conversation about why she wasn’t coming to class. She shared she had anxiety, and they found ways to lower that anxiety.

The team is also changing student culture, playing music when kids walk in for the day and reinforcing the principles of what they call “The Bison Way.” 

According to Hittenbach, it’s all about creating a sense of home and belonging for kids.

Teachers call home more often for good and bad news, a student support team meets with at-risk students and teachers get more professional training on how to bridge racial divides.

“It’s easier to discipline a student when you don’t really know that student and you just automatically think they’re doing something disrespectful,” Lutterloh said. “If you know that student, you know they’re going to grunt … But you know they’re going to do exactly what you want them to do because you’ve built that relationship.”

Administrators also started the “Take a Stroll on the Boulevard” program. Family and community members can come in and check on their students while decked out in HPCHS gear.

On Monday, Montana Rivera checked in on her 15-year-old sister who was having trouble with attendance.

“I came last Wednesday, and the day that I came, she had a 100 on one of her little quizzes, and I was like, ‘We have been seeing progress with just me coming on that first day,'” Rivera said.

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And the strategies are working.

HPCHS has seen a 60% reduction in lost instructional time from disciplinary measures like suspensions, meaning more time in the classroom and a better chance at a positive outcome.

“If a student is having a bad day, you can’t really say … ‘Get over it. We have work to do.’ You can’t get work done until you’re actually helping those needs on a foundational level,” Lutterloh said.