Walk down the hallway at Holyoke High School and step into room 319, the student support room, and you’ll see a dozen chairs arranged in a broad circle. There are plants in the windows.
Student paintings cover the walls. Students meet one-on-one with counselors, and others work on projects, speaking in Spanish and English. The room is dynamic, messy and vital.
Three years ago, it didn’t look like this at all.
“Yeah, this was in-school suspension,” said Jo Kent Katz, the student support coordinator. “This room was like probably ten rows of ten desks. You know, come in and put your head down. That’s it. It felt pretty bad in here.”
Stephanie Duque, a senior at the high school, said that with the old setup, the room looked like a jail cell.
“There would be students on their phone, with their heads down, not doing work. Nobody was talking to them to figure out what was going on,” Duque said.
Duque and Katz are both part of the program responsible for transforming student support at the school. It’s called Pa’lante, a Puerto Rican phrase that translates as “moving forward.”
“We did research on what actually benefits students,” Duque said. “You know, we’re humans, we need to be supported in different ways.”
Students in trouble come to this room to de-escalate conflicts and get emotional help. Spanish is welcome here. Some students and staff say that’s a significant-but-uncommon accommodation in a school that’s 74 percent Latino.
Five years ago, Holyoke High had one of the highest rates of suspension for Latino students in the entire nation. The school is now under control of the state, and while suspensions are down, the school faces ongoing challenges. Pa’lante trains students to lead the way in transforming discipline at the school.
Cristopher “Domi” Lora, a senior, said being part of Pa’lante has changed how he views his own identity and how he deals with conflict.
“I came into Holyoke with that same mentality, like, I’m a earn my respect no matter where I go,” Lora said. “So after joining the program, I noticed that I don’t have to be this big and bad guy. I don’t have to be like, ’Oh, don’t look at me that way or I’m a punch you in the face.’ No, it’s cool to be you.”
There’s a lot going on at Pa’lante. First there are the peer leaders—a strongly-bonded group of 25 students who meet numerous times a week. Then there are the “action research” projects these students engage in every year, like the one that led to changes in the student support room. And finally there’s “circle practice,” a mode of conflict resolution facilitated by peer leaders for other students, and even teachers.
Many participants, like junior Nashali Pagan, found their way to Pa’lante by first ending up in trouble themselves.
“So I was in this conflict with another student,” Pagan said, “and I’m not a violent person at all, so I tried to like, you know, I held it in for a while. I’m like, ’You know what, maybe this is going to be over. Maybe it’s going to stop.’ And it didn’t, and that was when the rage was getting to me.”
The situation could easily have escalated into a full-blown fight, but Pagan got help from Pa’lante. She sat down with the other student using tools of what’s known as restorative justice, which focuses on reconciliation rather than blanket forms of punishment. Each participant in the circle speaks from their own experience, and those who are directly in conflict take responsibility for their actions.
Pagan described a powerful experience of witnessing and understanding herself in a new way.
“I wasn’t just in the circle,” she said, “but I was kind of like looking at it from a different perspective, like I was looking into the circle as it was happening. It’s a weird way to describe it but it’s true. And I liked what I saw. You know, I felt so relieved after that circle. I was like, uhh, finally.”
Restorative justice is getting national attention these days from educators trying to curb suspension rates at their schools. In 2014, the Obama administration issued guidelines cutting the use of zero tolerance and other punitive disciplinary policies, which numerous studies show disproportionately affect students of color. Education Secretary Betsy Devos is now considering rescinding those guidelines.
But here at Holyoke High, Lora said the problem isn’t just that zero tolerance is discriminatory. It’s that suspension doesn’t work.
“You gonna suspend me for walking around?” he said. “Alright, wait ’til I get back. I’mma do it again. I’mma do it in your face. Next time you tell me something, I’mma curse you out. It’s just like, you gotta learn to deal with teenagers, and suspension is not the way to do it.”
Ro Sigle is one of two interventionists with Pa’lante, responsible for coordinating restorative justice circles. Sigle said one suspension often leads to another, a key dynamic in what’s widely called the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Every suspension isn’t about the moment that caused the suspension,” Sigle said. “Every time a student causes harm or makes a mistake or has a behavioral issue, there’s always a floodgate of other things happening.”
Luke Woodward, director of Pa’lante, said the program tries to conduct circles the morning a student returns to school following suspension, a critical moment in breaking the repeat-suspension cycle.
“So I guess, OK, if there are times when students are going to be suspended,” Woodward said, “how do you try to not have them get pushed out of school through that process? So what we do is to try to -- rather than pushing them out -- pull them in even closer.”
But not everyone at Holyoke High is convinced restorative justice can fix the school’s disciplinary challenges. Woodward said some teachers are on board with the program, while others just see it as permissive.
“We had this little program, and we were not able to handle the volume of things that go through the schools,” he said. “So I think some teachers became frustrated by feeling like, ’Oh there’s no consequences, and it’s because of restorative justice.’ ”
Pa’lante does have support from teachers’ union president Pete McAndrew. But he doesn’t think the program has the capacity, currently, to meet the school’s needs.
“I think the restorative justice program, while it was rolled out as a discipline program, wasn’t really ready to encompass the full discipline of the building at Holyoke High School,” McAndrew said.
Holyoke schools’ state-appointed superintendent, Stephen Zrike, said in a statement that the district supports and wants to expand on Pa’lante’s efforts. The district is even piloting a new restorative justice program in a Holyoke middle school.
But there’s still uncertainty among staff and students involved with Pa’lante, who said they worry about inconsistent funding. This is of great concern for senior Vianca Gonzalez. A peer leader for three years, she said Pa’lante is about a lot more than conflict resolution.
“For me it’s a counter-narrative,” Gonzalez said. “Because the dominant narrative is, people from Holyoke: drug dealers, pregnancies, drop-out. And Pa’lante is providing this outlet for us where we can show people that being Latinos from Holyoke we’re not who they think we are, and we’re going to prove them wrong.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report misspelled the name of Nashali Pagan.