“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.

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