The way Jefferson County Public Schools discipline students has recently led to heated debate among Louisville activists and education leaders.

At a recent JCPS school board meeting, activists lashed out at board members, saying despite recent efforts from a JCPS committee to revise the student code of conduct, district officials still weren’t doing enough to lower suspension rates—a key point in the method known as “restorative practices.”

But, while those restorative practices can help reduce suspension rates and prevent misbehavior, a single, overarching theory will not work in addressing discipline in district schools, said a Jefferson County Public School principal who has expressed interest in adopting the much-discussed approach.

JCPS has lowered suspension rates, and Field Elementary Principal Deborah Rivera said the lowered suspension rates are due, in part, to unprecedented district support for handling misbehavior.

“We have been really lucky this year that there have been so many proactive changes that have been put in place that have never been there before,” said Rivera, whose school is in the Crescent Hill neighborhood.  “This is my third year as principal and I have never felt so supported before.”

Those changes, Rivera said, include aspects of restorative practices, along with a collection of best practices from other discipline models.

She said restorative practices have been couple with Positive Behavior Intervention Supports, PBIS, and Student Response Teams, as well as adding school psychologists and behavior counselors.

Assistant principals have been added at all elementary schools, as well, but JCPS officials say their presence at the schools may cause elementary suspension rates to increase for the current school year.

Rivera took part in a 2012 JCPS survey that aimed at recording the number of schools interested in implementing restorative practices.

Here are the 2012-13 suspension numbers for other elementary schools that expressed interest in restorative practices.

And here are 2012-13 suspension numbers for middle and high schools. 

(If you’re having trouble seeing the charts, go here, here and here.)

To see the survey results, click here. Note: Suspensions data wasn’t available for all the schools that expressed interest in restorative practices.

At the time of the survey, she said she was ready to sign up for restorative practices, 37 other school administrators from around the district also expressed interest in adopting whole school restorative practices.

She said principals and administrators from the district participated in a professional development training session with “folks from restorative practices” and afterwards, said school leaders were able to adapt and tweak some of the aspects from restorative practices to develop a discipline model that is specific for her school.

“Due to the support that we now have from the district, I have the time and the information to sit down with my staff and really make sure we have a program that is going to work for our kids,” Rivera said.

But Christopher Kolb, a spokesperson for the pro-restorative practices group CLOUT, said there is no one in the JCPS systemqualified to train teachers or principals on the implementation of restorative practices.

“Principals and teachers may honestly think they are receiving restorative practices training, but they’re just not,” he said.  ”They’re likely to think that restorative practices don’t work, but they just weren’t being provided with quality training.”

Rivera said by combining different individualized programs she has seen success in the effort of reducing suspension.

“We are definitely heading in the right direction,” she said.

And she said it is important to have a “tailor made” system for addressing discipline.

JCPS has nearly 100,000 students at more than 170 educational institutions. Rivera said restorative practices can’t fit for every student at every school, because different schools have different discipline issues.

“Restorative practices offers so much, but within a building you’ve got to honor the diversity and you’ve got to honor the needs within your school building and the needs of your kiddos,” she said.  “Nothing is going to be one size fits all, but we owe it to our kids to pull best practices from multiple sources and that’s what we are doing and it is working.”

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.