+ Discussion Circles Provide “Restorative Justice” at Schools

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Sixteen schools in Milwaukee are taking part in a “restorative justice” program.  Students with issues sit in a circle where all sides present their views and then talk about how to work it out, according to Jack Orton’s article in the Journal Sentinel.

Around ten people, mostly other classmates, sit in a circle around an object such as electric candle.  You can’t talk unless you’re holding on to a ball which is passed around from one to another.

Everything that is said is confidential, and no one can speak without respecting everyone else.

The conversation starts with an icebreaker: what’s your favorite food, for example.  Then down to business, with one of the kids leading the discussion.  The leader follows a process in which everyone gets to present their side and talk about the impact  the problem had on them.

Finally, there’s a discussion of what ought to be done and how to get to a point of trust and respect.

Work it out, right?

According to kids as well as adults who are involved in this disciplinary approach, most of the time you do work it out.

Audubon Technology & Communication Center High School, as of last week, reported there had been only four suspensions so far this year, among about 100 ninth-graders at Audubon.

At Milwaukee Public Schools this year, there is a big push to reduce suspensions.  A national consulting team came in last year and determined that MPS had one of the highest suspension rates in the country.

“Restorative Justice”

The conversation circles are using principles of what is called restorative justice.  The goal is not to punish, but to get students onto a path of making better choices, understanding the impact of what they do, and dealing with other people in a more productive way. 

The hope is that kids will learn something, change their ways and not just miss classes for three days.

MPS is participating in a campaign called the Safe School/Healthy Student Initiative.  It has been funded by an $8.5 million  four-year federal grant, and is creating coalitions involving numerous community organizations including police and fire departments as well as juvenile justice and mental health officials. 

The goal is to promote more coordinated and effective ways to deal with aspects of children’s lives that don’t directly involve academics but indirectly affect learning in big ways. 

One student at Audubon says, “We’ve become more like a family and not just kids who go to school together.  We’ve grown up big time in the last few months.”

The new approach has resulted in kids giving more thought to the effect of what they do and say.  This year, there is much less of the he said/she said friction, says that ninth-grader.

Social studies teacher Marvin Williams feels, “It helps them think about the decisions they make, how they affect others.”

And Principal Barbara Goss says the big reason for success is the 100% buy-in from the staff.

Students Take the Lead

Last summer, about half dozen or so students took part in training in the program.  They are often the core figures in the discussion in the circles.  Teachers have said that often students speak more strongly to kids who caused problems than staff members themselves might. 

Hearing it from people their own age has great impact on the offenders.

It is true that sometimes the circles don’t work.  One teacher described a student who had had multiple violations and just wouldn’t accept responsibility for her actions.

But, says the teacher Lois Calloway, “I know she heard what we had to say.”  And if she had simply been suspended, there would never have been the conversation.

Overall the the effort has been hugely successful, says Goss, although there is still much work to do.

There has been improvement across MPS .  Kristi Cole heads the safety and health campaign.  She says the new approaches are really taking hold at schools like Audubon.

And is the climate in the schools improving?  “Without a doubt,” she says.

sole source: online article by Jack Orton in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on 3/18/09.  www.jsonline.com

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