“Welcome to the pride of the city, Peoria High School,” the answering machine message in Principal Brett Elliott’s office says.

It’s not only a play on the school’s nickname, the Lions, but a constant reminder to Elliott of where the school has been, where it is now and where it is going.

In 2009, Peoria High’s students scored among the worst in Illinois on standardized reading, math and science exams. Kids were suspended and expelled by the dozens, a trend seen across the country.

Now, though, the school is the fastest-improving one in the city. And changing the way they handle discipline, not just boosting academics, may be the key to their success.

Two years after Peoria High was forced to apply for a federal School Improvement Grant and completely turn over its administration. The superintendent tapped the Elliott, now 43, who never applied for the job and was working as an assistant principal at a nearby middle school, to lead the turnaround.

Elliott’s first goal was to change the punitive culture at the school and create an atmosphere for learning and cooperation. Discipline policies weren’t working – there was no trust between staff and students, leading to high numbers of referrals to law enforcement and out-of-school suspensions, especially for minority students, Elliott said. Looking for alternatives, Elliott first enrolled his staff in the Why Try program to help teachers build positive, meaningful relationships with students. Soon after, they started applying what they learned.

In the past, “If [students] got sent out of class, they’d go to an assistant principal and get the normal discipline,” Elliott said in a phone interview. “Here, if they’re disrupting the class…they’d get strategies on how they can better cope in class and talk about why they’re misbehaving and so on. Then get them back into the classroom, which basically eliminates that they’re just going to go down the same old track of being suspended and then eventually expelled.”

Since Elliott took over four years ago, Peoria High has become the fastest-improving school in the city on standardized test scores and has cut discipline referrals and suspensions, the district says.

Peoria High’s policies are indicative of a shift in the way some schools districts are handling conduct issues, paying special attention to concerns about racial disparities in student discipline. Instead of just kicking kids out, schools are trying to mediate discipline issues with innovative approaches like “peace rooms” and “conflict circles.”

During the 2011-2012 school year, for example, 20 percent of black male students nationwide received out-of-school suspensions compared to just 6 percent of white males, according to data collected on elementary and secondary public school students from Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

School discipline experts at UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies cite this “discipline gap” as one of the reasons the United States has been “unable to close the [educational] achievement gap” that exists between minority and white students.

The group’s report, released in February, finds that, regardless of race, “U.S. public school children lost nearly 18 million days of instruction…because of exclusionary discipline” in 2011-2012.

“This is an academic issue,” Daniel Losen, one of the report’s authors and the director of the center, said at a congressional panel on the subject in March. “This is not really primarily a safety issue. This goes to the core of school environments and whether we have a healthy educational environment to provide kids with appropriate conditions for learning.”

For years, many teachers followed zero-tolerance policies when it came to student discipline, prioritizing safety. These policies encouraged schools to suspend students for many types of violent and non-violent misconduct. Congress even passed the Guns-Free Schools Act in 1994, authorizing year-long suspensions for any students bringing a weapon to school.

“Some of [the policies] got triggered by a lot of the school shootings and guns getting into schools,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, at the panel. “It became something about knives and guns, initially, to try to ensure that the inside of the school became a safe environment.”

Weingarten, who taught in a New York City high school during the 1990s, said the policies expanded to include smaller infractions through an adoption of the “broken windows theory.”

Often applied to preventing urban crime, the theory focuses on punishing minor offenses — vandalism, public drinking, etc. — to create a baseline for eliminating anti-social behavior. Thus, behavioral issues such as talking out of turn and poor attendance became infractions punishable by out-of-school suspension.

As recently as 2008, schools in Virginia issued more than 18,530 suspensions for truancy, according to Angela Coifi, the legal director for the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center.

These more-subjective offenses have disproportionately impacted black students, according to a 2002 study in the Urban Review. The researchers’ examination of racial differences in discipline in urban middle schools found that black students were punished more often than their white peers for “disrespect, excessive noise, threat and loitering.”

Running into trouble at school can often be an older student’s first introduction to the criminal justice system. Students suspended for a discretionary violation were three times more likely than others to be involved with the juvenile justice system in the following year, according to a Council of State Governments and Texas A&M University study of school discipline in Texas public schools released in 2011.

“We need a paradigm shift to move from a punitive, sanction-based system [of discipline],” Weingarten said, “to a restorative, responsibility-based system.”

One of the ways to help in this paradigm shift is to engage students, teachers and other school and community authority figures in trust-building relationships. Mutual respect between various parties fosters a more inclusive school and community discipline system, according to Nancy Michaels, associate director of the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

Michaels advocates for and helps schools carry out restorative justice policies, programs that focus on “repairing harm and building relationships.”

In a basic sense, restorative justice is the opposite of a zero-tolerance policy.

Careful, empathetic discussion replaces quick, precise punishment. Teachers play integral roles in preventing, not penalizing, wrongdoing. Students are made to feel more included rather than alienated from the classroom.

“It is used as an alternative to zero-tolerance policies and school push out,” Michaels said. “In order to implement restorative justice in a holistic way so you really are living the philosophy, it needs to be implemented at many different levels within the school.”

Students who have broken rules, she says, participate in “conflict and talking circles” with peers, teachers, parents and other community members to “repair and build relationships.”

“[The circles] are not based on a conflict that happens or on discipline, but basically on talking through things that weigh heavily especially on young people in urban environments that could potentially turn into aggressive behavior,” Michaels said. “Restorative justice, in our eyes, is not reactionary, but a preventative, proactive way to deal with not only conflict but life issues.”

Unlike their responsibilities in more traditional models of school discipline, authority figures take time to learn about and understand the “root causes” of a student’s behavior, making it easier to “more accurately deal with what’s really going on in that child’s life,” she said.

Chicago, like Peoria, has begun to use restorative justice principles in more of its schools.

Since the 2010-2011 school year, out-of-school suspensions in Chicago Public Schools have dropped 33 percent, according to a document released from the mayor’s office. Also, 65 percent of seniors graduated high school in 2013-2014, a seven-percent increase, according to documents released by the city. The city cites the changes in discipline code as the top reason for these improvements.

Critics, though, say restorative justice represents an ideal unattainable in greater society. Outside of school, they reason, students will not be able to talk through a behavioral mishap in the same way they would in a “conflict circle.”

Michaels said she understands the sentiment but believes restorative justice does more to change communities and help inner-city students navigate their personal struggles.

While the hopeful signs in Chicago and Peoria are being mirrored in Syracuse, New York, and Oakland, California, leaders of the National Education Association still see challenges ahead.

Harry Lawson Jr., the associate director of the teachers union’s human and civil rights department, said at the congressional briefing that it’s difficult to change the mindsets of the union’s members so quickly. The fact that teachers are now able to have a conversation about discipline that examines its racial impacts and moves away from zero-tolerance is progress, he says.

As more schools successfully implement restorative justice practices, Elliott thinks others will follow. According to the Peoria School District’s Superintendent Grenita Lathan, each of the 27 schools in the district uses its own alternative discipline system to create a fairer and healthier atmosphere.

“There has to be a consequence, of course, for behaviors,” Lathan said, “but we can always look at alternative ways to discipline students.”