The heart of being human–a tale of personal and institutional learning

One of the powerful aspects of using circles for resolving conflicts in schools is the institutional learning that can occur. Here’s an example:

I was recently called to keep a circle at a high school (in restorative practice, I think of myself as a “circlekeeper”, not a “facilitator”).  Some seniors had committed an offense that warranted suspension…just three days before graduation.

This is a great example of where punishment would probably  not serve the community well. So the principal requested a restorative approach. We were contacted on Wednesday. I held the circle on Thursday.  And the seniors walked in their graduation on Friday.

It was a positive resolution, but getting there was not easy. It was a complex situation involving behaviors that had unfolded over a long time period, and the circle lasted close to three hours. Besides myself, there were the students, their parents, and three school staff. One of the learnings that came out as we worked through the issues was that staff had missed some important clues about some types of bullying that were occurring on campus.  Based on my experience working in many schools, I would say this is not uncommon. But, thanks to the circle, we also had an uncommon opportunity: the students were able to directly describe to staff these particular forms of bullying and how they had participated as perpetrators as well as how they had been affected as victims.

The staff listened. They heard. They got it. And they realized that they, too, were in the circle to learn.

The circle came to a number of agreements.  A part of the agreement is that the students will be back in August before they leave town for the respective colleges, to give them a 20 minute training that will hopefully increase their awareness about types of bullying and how students are impacted.

That’s institutional learning. And it’s healing for the community. And it’s peace making; it’s about making things right. It’s an example of the power of restorative practices in schools.

A punishment-based approach would never have accomplished that.

Today I received a copy of the agreement, which the principal wrote. In a concluding paragraph the principal wrote:

“I thank all of you, students and parents alike, who worked hard to establish understanding and agreements, and address the hurtful and damaging behaviors that took place. It was a time of heightened emotions, so close to graduation. Each one of us, me included, came to a new understanding and I believe that this is the heart of being a human being–how we grow and learn in order to become more effective in the world.”

Amen.

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Note for circlekeepers: in this circle I used Dominic Barter’s approach. I’m finding it’s very helpful in situations that are complex and emotionally loaded, but for which I don’t have much prep time. Dominic stresses the importance of the “pre-circle” prep phase, and I agree; but when the situation doesn’t allow for it, his Circle strategy works very well. If you haven’t had his training yet, I highly recommend it.

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