Toward a Restorative Student Attendance Review Board (SARB)

Yesterday I had a great conversation with a couple dozen school administrators who are responsible for the Student Attendance Review process in their schools and districts. The point of the conversation was to explore how restorative principles could fit in with the SARB process.

SARB happens when a student is chronically truant. The purpose is to encourage the student to resume regular attendance at school. Often there is an element of coercion in the process–threats of legal consequences–but I think it’s fair to say that much of the intent is restorative. After all, if the process is successful the student will renew their relationship with the school and will enjoy some academic success. It’s even possible that the school will find new ways to support the student, and perhaps even address some of the issues in the school that students find discouraging.

For example, student attendance is likely to drop off if a student does not feel safe, perhaps from being bullying or otherwise at risk; or if the student experiences school as a place of failure and humiliation, a reasonable response to falling behind academically and not being able to comprehend assignments or keep up with peers. In circumstances like this–fear and humiliation-it’s worth consider whether chronic truancy is perhaps a sane and reasonable choice. Because we include institutional decision makers in many restorative processes, the possibility exists that social and institutional conditions that present real physical, emotional, and social risk can be identified and strategies developed to make things right. This means recognizing that the responsibility for improving attendance may be not just on the shoulders of the student and the student’s parents, but shared by the whole school community.

In the SARB workshop yesterday, the approach we took was to begin with a presentation of the principals and values upon which restorative practices are based. We moved to some of the forms of restorative practice that are used by schools. We explored ways to consider who might be affected by a student’s chronic truancy, and how, with the suggestion that these are people who might be invited to a SARB meeting. We then had a brief study of the set of restorative questions used in the SaferSanerSchools and RealJustice processes taught by the International Institute for Restorative Practices. With that discussion as a foundation, we used a “case study,” and the group split into smaller circle to role-play a SARB meeting, trying out the restorative questions and sitting in a circle.

Here are some of the insights that emerged from the group:

Before a SARB, there is a School Attendance Review Team (SART) meeting held at the student’s campus.  SARTs are generally effective at re-engaging about 30% of the students. By reorganizing them as a restorative circles, it’s possible that this success rate may improve dramatically. The group felt that SART was the best place for a restorative circle, because the SARB process itself is constrained by legal procedures and is often strictly time-limited. The SART is the best place to include a broad range of people who are affected by the student’s truancy–relatives, siblings, teachers, etc.  By observing how participants contribute to the SART circle, the team has an opportunity to identify which participants are most likely to make positive contributions to the SARB, which is the next step if the student does not improve attendance. The group also recognized that sharing impacts (affective communication) was a powerful approach that is rarely used by some SARB teams. A related realization was that it could be very productive to invite students and parents to share information about what they are thinking, how they are impacted, and their ideas about how to make things right. A final point made related to SART is that by using a restorative process the student is probably better prepared for a successful SARB if they are eventually referred to one.

For students who are referred to SARB, the group felt it would probably not work to invite as many impacted people or to feature the restorative questions quite so centrally (although they would still be useful). This is because of constraints imposed by legal requirements and brief meeting times. However, some group members felt that meeting in a circle could make a big difference. Many SARBs meet board room style, with SARB members sometimes elevated and seated in intimidating arrangements. Thus, the restorative principle of relationships is compromised from the beginning. While in the circle, attention to the seating arrangement could make a big difference. An example given was of a school administrator sitting next to the student, where he could better make connections and give support.

Finally, after SART or SARB, when students do become reengaged in school, make sure to congratulate them. One way to do this by sending a hand-written note or card. But the idea that was my favorite was to reconvene the SART circle with the student, and revisit the restorative questions: “Now that you’ve succeeded, what are you thinking? Who do you think is impacted by your success, and how? Is there anything that feel is unfinished in terms of making things right? What do you think you  need to do, or needs to done to address that? And, what additional support do you need?”

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One Response

  1. School attendance systems need to be changed and/or implemented. Too many children are falling through the cracks. Some schools are reluctant to implement new systems because of the challenge of having students accept the changes. With proper planning, training, and preparation, students will see the benefits to themselves and the school. They will also feel confident that they can make the adjustments to it. Newer students are going to be more accepting of changes than the older ones.

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