Restorative Circles program builds empathy, conflict resolution skills in middle school students

Restorative Circles, a new program at Godfrey Lee Middle School, teaches conflict resolution and builds empathy with help from the Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan. Marla R. Miller reports on ways the nonprofit is supporting students to create their own solutions.
Rather than punishing and shaming students for disruptive behavior, a pilot program called Restorative Circles aims to help them explore what happened, reflect on their role, and restore harmony to relationships and in the larger school community.
The program at Wyoming’s Godfrey Lee Middle School launched last fall as a new outreach of the Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan, a local nonprofit with the mission of helping people to solve their differences peacefully and constructively using a trained mediator. The center reached out to Godfrey Lee to administer the two-year pilot program, which is being funded through several grants.
“It’s essentially a different way to look at discipline problems in schools,” says Executive Director Christine Gilman. “We’re trying it out at this juncture. I would like to see it grow to the high school and more districts.”
Modeled on a philosophy known as Restorative Justice, the Restorative Circles program takes a similar approach by bringing affected students together to discuss the conflict or dispute, focusing on what can be done to repair the damage and how to prevent it from happening again, Gilman says.
The traditional approach to school discipline follows this model: Who did it? What rule was broken? What is the punishment? Students then return to class or school without true resolution or addressing the underlying issue that caused the conflict in the first place.
The Restorative Justice philosophy defines accountability as “repairing the harm” instead of simply “taking the punishment.” The process involves the offending student taking responsibility for what they did, and the victim agreeing to help come to a suitable resolution.
Ultimately, students become part of the solution, instead of “the problem,” Gilman says. It gives everyone the opportunity to find closure and to move on from the incident.
“It’s pretty cool when the light goes on and they can say ‘I didn’t realize what I was saying was offending you in this way,’” Gilman says. “It’s the kind of thing that’s going to build slowly. It helps to empower the kids. They’re figuring out themselves what went wrong and how to fix it.”

Gilman visits the middle school twice a week to hold confidential circles with students. She contacts all the affected parties, explains the process, and arranges the meeting. Participation is voluntary.
Students are usually referred by a teacher, guidance counselor or other administrative staff before a suspension or expulsion, she says. Typical offenses include after-school fights or verbal arguments, social media rumors, bullying and other forms of intimidation, and stealing or destruction of property.
“The goal is to make little problems go away,” Gilman says. “When they are suspended, they are missing school work, not mending their relationship while they’re apart or feel guilty and might want to apologize.”
Kathryn Curry, principal at Godfrey Lee Middle and High School, says the middle school is pretty quiet as far as in-school altercations. She sees the program as helping to resolve typical middle school interpersonal issues that are often left to fester and decreasing the overall rate of discipline incidents.
More importantly, it gives students the tools to address and resolve conflict and learn to get along, Curry says. People often think they cannot be friends or have to hold a grudge for a lifetime.
“Learning how to resolve conflict is really a life skill that is important, whether it’s in school, with their family or later on in the workplace,” she says. “You can talk it out, come to a common agreement and move on.”
As the program grows, Curry hopes to see more students seeking out Gilman. Because she is an independent, unbiased third party, Gilman says students do seem to be more responsive and less guarded. She has no history with them or the authority to discipline.
“It’s always helpful to have a neutral person,” she says. “They don’t know me. I let them know ‘I’m not here to get you in trouble, but to help you try to work out the problem.’ I’m mostly facilitating their discussion so we can get their dispute out in the open.” She sees all different students, ages 10 to 14, from the general student population.
“It’s a lot of relationship problems,” Gilman says. “Name calling, bullying sorts of issues, breakdowns in friendships. It usually stems from something silly: They don’t like each other; their parents didn’t like each other; they don’t think they have anything in common. And they come out with an understanding and building an empathy they didn’t have before.”
The meeting is called a circle, but they usually sit in a triangle so the offender and victim can talk face-to-face. Gilman also uses a talking piece, and the person in possession has the floor to speak without being interrupted. Others in the circle are encouraged to be quiet and listen until they have the opportunity to talk.
“We keep the communication going around, keep them looking at each other,” she says. “They’re doing the work and communicating directly with each other.”
Gilman helps the participants discuss how they were affected and how they believe the incident can and should be repaired. A resolution plan is written and signed by all, and includes things like how the harm should be mended, apologies, agreements, financial restitution, counseling or community service. The offender and victim may not become friends, but it encourages reconciliation and helps them learn to coexist in a school environment.

The goal of the restorative plan is to restore harmony to the school, so the teacher can get back to teaching and students can focus on learning, Gilman says. The circle process also fosters empathy, active listening, and healthy communication skills. Participants are encouraged to share their thoughts, feelings and points of view.
The Dispute Resolution Center secured several grants to offer Restorative Circles at Godfrey Lee, including one from the Wyoming Community Foundation and two at the state level. Godfrey Lee was identified at the state level for being a school with a large disparity between the suspension and expulsion rates of special education and minority students versus white students, Gilman says. Curry says the school has a high minority population and very few fights.
Restorative Circles will run through the 2014-15 school year. The program is similar to a pilot program started internally at Grand Rapids Public Schools. The program’s long-term outcomes include reducing suspension and expulsion rates for minority and special education students; helping to resolve conflict among all students so they can get a better education; and to stem the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Anything we can do to help kids communicate directly is going to make them better adults and help us have a better community,” Gilman says. “Everyone faces conflict. We give them the tools to help manage that conflict.”
Marla R. Miller is a freelance writer who enjoys meeting cool people and telling their stories. Her interests include arts, entertainment, entrepreneurs, food and travel, innovating organizations and the inspiring work of nonprofits. An award-winning features writer and former newspaper reporter, she is not putting her master's degree to use, but finally feels happy. Check out her website:
Photography by Adam Bird
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