An ambitious plan to keep students out of detention in East Portland elementary schools

By John Notarianni (OPB)
Sept. 12, 2022 12 p.m.

The David Douglas School District has hired assistant principals of restorative practices to find solutions before discipline is necessary.

Backpacks line the hallway at Prescott Elementary in Northeast Portland, Feb. 8, 2022.

Backpacks line the hallway at Prescott Elementary in Northeast Portland, Feb. 8, 2022.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB


As students return to class, schools everywhere are dealing with the ongoing consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic: a growing achievement gap, youth mental health crises, even violence in the hallways sometimes. But many students in East Portland’s David Douglas School District — home to OPB’s Class of 2025 Project — are coming back into the classroom with a little bit of additional support.

All of the district’s elementary schools have added a new assistant principal of restorative practices. The idea is to help students deal with problems in a productive way and to find solutions before discipline is necessary. Kathleen Lower has spent 18 years with the David Douglas school district. Today, she’s the new assistant principal of restorative practices at Cherry Park Elementary. She talked with OPB Weekend Edition host John Notarianni about how the new role will work.

John Notarianni: I’m familiar with the idea of restorative justice for adults: of trying to find ways to heal communities in addition to holding people responsible. But how does this work with children?

Kathleen Lower: With children, we’re really working on building relationships from the get-go, from as early as preschool. If there’s behavior or anything we need to deal with, we can work through it in a restorative way — having restorative conferences and really working with the kids, so they understand their behaviors.

Notarianni: What sort of disciplinary models are you looking to replace with this?

Lower: Definitely the exclusionary models such as detentions and suspensions, where kids are sent away from the room for extended periods of time.

Notarianni: Are you seeing the impact that the pandemic is still having on student behavior?

Lower: Oh, definitely. I think it’s a combination of the pandemic and social media, and internet. Kids, I have noticed over my 18 years, have become more disconnected socially.

Notarianni: How is that manifesting in the David Douglas schools?

Lower: I think they don’t have the skills to work through problems socially. I’m seeing more anxiety. I’m seeing more extroverted behaviors where they’re throwing things, running out of the room instead of explaining how they feel and what’s really going on with them.

Notarianni: And you didn’t used to see that as much?

Lower: Not as much. We would have a handful, but not as many as we’re seeing now.


Notarianni: Well, you’ve been working with the David Douglas schools for nearly two decades, and I understand that you started incorporating some of these restorative practices in your previous role, back when you were a student behavioral specialist with the district. Do you have any examples of when this type of thing has worked for one of your students?

Lower: Yeah, I had a student that I worked with last year, and that student had really high anxiety and trouble connecting with people. So, I really worked on building relationships, so that they would trust me. Then, when they had behaviors — either flipping a desk or running out of the room or doing other disruptive things — I could pull them out and have some real conversations about, what were you thinking? What were you feeling when that was happening? What do you need to avoid this? How can we solve these problems?

It didn’t work right off the bat. It takes a lot of time. But, over the year building those relationships where they could feel safer in the classroom, I saw definitely improvement in his behavior.

Notarianni: And how was that student doing today?

Lower: Very well! They’re off to middle school now.

Notarianni: It must be amazing to be able to work with these children and see that type of change, because I think we all know that children can become very scared, or very defensive when they’re faced with disciplinary action. But, that’s kind of been the model of how you’re supposed to act in school as long as we can remember, right? It seems like this is a big shift.

Lower: Oh yeah, definitely. I think having kids talk through what’s happening really helps them to take on ownership and responsibility of their behavior, because that’s what I’m seeing when we’re seeing repeated behavior. They’re not really taking responsibility, or maybe they don’t even understand the impact of their behavior.

Notarianni: Part of the aim of this program, I understand, is also to reduce racial disparities in achievement that the district sees. I’m wondering what sort of disparities are there in the David Douglas school district today, and how are you hoping that this type of program can help?

Lower: Our data definitely shows disproportionate results in both academic and behavior. So our children of color are performing far below other children in the district, and they’re also being referred more often. The goal is to have them not be out of the classroom as long, so we can do stuff to solve the problems to get them back in the classroom, learning.

Notarianni: What do you say to people who are skeptical that restorative practices wouldn’t be strict enough in some circumstances, like even at an extreme position: say, a youth who is planning a school shooting. I know that that’s on a lot of people’s minds, and some people think that students need firmer discipline.

Lower: True. Yeah. I have heard that they feel like restorative practices doesn’t have any consequences or discipline, which isn’t true because we still have our discipline matrix. So, if there are serious things like a weapon brought in, or threats of violence, we still are using our discipline matrix. So, it’s not that we’ve gotten rid of suspensions and those other policies; were just trying to do more restorative stuff before anybody gets to that point.

Notarianni: Yeah, it’s like an expansion of the toolkit. It does feel like there’s kind of an assumption based into these types of practices, that sometimes behavioral problems aren’t entirely the individual student’s fault — that they could be result of societal factors, or institutional factors. That in some ways, the school itself has a responsibility to help fix some of these things.

Lower: Right. Exactly. That’s what you find out, when you’re having these restorative conversations — you really get to the root of what’s happening with the child. Sometimes you’re surprised at what the causes are. Sometimes it’s it’s an easy fix, and sometimes it’s not so easy to fix.

Notarianni: I’m wondering how that changes how you and your colleagues educate.

Lower: I think what has been eye-opening through all of this, is just really getting back to looking at the whole child. For so long, we’ve been really focused on academics, which is extremely important. But if the child isn’t at a place to learn, they’re not going to learn. So, we do have to look at the whole child, and all the social emotional stuff that goes along with the child, as we’re presenting the academic piece too.

Listen to Ms. Lower’s conversation with OPB host John Notarianni using the audio player above.