I was very fortunate that in 1999 and 2000 the founders of St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Program, had intentions on focusing the program on juveniles. They also engaged a founding board member, who at the time was on the local school board. Her take on expulsions in schools, was youth were being pushed away at a time they should be brought closer. With her leadership SCVRJP focused on “embedding the philosophy” of Restorative Justice in the St. Croix Valley. As board chair she guided us towards the areas of juvenile justice and schools, and the core programs of Victim Impact Panels and victim-offender mediation (as we called it then).
As luck would have it, we added a high school assistant principal to the board of directors. His house was egged, he accepted Restorative Justice. His story of the healing it brought his spouse, and the positive relationship with the students, promoted his support and use of SCVRJP.
The first Circle I kept for SCVRJP was in 2005, for a school-based incident. I still keep a copy of the young man’s apology letter in my book of Circle readings. He still keeps the Circle of individual ribbons tied together, in his top drawer of special things.
I live 12 miles from River Falls, where SCVRJP was founded and eventually opened the Restorative Justice Center in 2006. Before the Restorative Justice Center opened, when I was “on the clock” I would stop in at the high school. This became a pattern of getting cases. Sometimes it was the students waiting to be disciplined. The assistant principal saw me, saw the student, and brought us in his office together. Sometimes we just visited about how to handle concerns at the school restoratively. SCVRJP handled cases of lunch room food fights, students assaulting each other, gym class threats, mean girls, overdose at school, truancy, drugs and drinking on a field trip. We handled these in various degrees of diversion or formal involvement.
The use of Restorative Justice was part of the student handbook and code of conduct. A few years later I called back for a new copy, it had already been removed. Staff changed, SCVRJP got busier and the use of Restorative Justice reduced in individual cases, and increased in teachers and staff coming to training. SCVRJP volunteers helped with Circles at a lock-in, one of those high school students is now in my college course! At any rate, things change, that is the first tip for the journey!
Be wise with your time and energy, things ebb and flow, and they change. Especially in schools. be patient when working with school systems. Consider the growing of a garden, sometimes to prune things back is best. Sometimes you get good tomatoes and sometimes you feed the bugs!
The 2nd tip, is to promote community. As community based programs, we are often “righting wrongs”. Community programs typically take referrals after an incident has happened. In schools it is important to reaffirm, repair and rebuild relationships (pbis posts). I teach schools Circles, because they can be used for academic instruction, classroom behavior management, and resolving conflict. To teach teachers how to do a victim-offender conference, is not the way to start (in my opinion). They don’t have time, they don’t understand the overarching philosophy or goals. The 3rd tip, is to meet schools where they are at.
Meet a school where they are at means spending time getting to know how they have come to want school-based restorative justice. I could list 50 different schools I’ve worked with, and I can give you 50 different ways they came to want to be trained in Restorative Justice. Help them based on where they are at and what they want. Align with the goals of those invested.
My 4th ‘wisdom of the lived experience’, encourage them to try something. When working with schools, have the direct application tips for teachers. These people are already angels, and they need clear specific “how do I” answers and training materials. Be structured in what you are asking them to do, from the 1:1 conversation with students, to how to keep the Circle. I love good teachers, the best are no-bullshit, and for a farm girl from South Dakota, I’ve always gotten that. They need you to be real, and to be confident and know your stuff. If you don’t know it, you can’t fake it. The best compliment I got was someone giving me positive feedback for doing Circle in Circle training. He had just been at a training on student engagement, and the trainer lectured and did powerpoint the entire day.
The 5th tip . . . walk the journey, go back to the school, do coaching and follow up. I had some exhausting days, but I learned the most when I went from class to class, circle to circle. I was right beside the team I was helping, I was in the school community they were trying to transform. Once I sent someone to go learn, and the school ended up on lock-down. The teacher and I laughed afterwards, but the lessons learned from that experience won’t go unforgotten!
The journey from community to school-based tips:
- Things Change, honor that cycles happen.
- Build community in schools, don’t start at the top of the PBIS triangle, start at the bottom.
- Meet schools where they are. What’s working well, what are they trying to accomplish.
- Get specific action items to those being trained. Encourage people to try something new.
- Follow up, coach, get experience doing the work in a school setting.
SCVRJP is hosting an advanced school-based training on June 8 & 9 in River Falls, WI. From now until July 31, I am available to do contracted trainings for SCVRJP. On August 1st, I will be available as Circle Space Services, offering trainings for practitioners and school-based providers.