Restorative justice methods trickle down to
Third grade teacher Audrey Brenholt passes an apple to
a student allowing her to speak to a ring of her classmates during a
recent circling session. Roselawn teachers are using more of this
restorative justice technique to address playground bullying.
Bullies hoping to tear apart the psyche of innocent
students at Roselawn Elementary will have to look elsewhere to get their
kicks in the future. Roselawn teachers have been
incorporating into their classrooms positive discipline tactics learned
from the Barron County Restorative Justice Program.
One of those methods is called circling, where
students gather in a circle to discuss issues that have arisen within
the class and resolutions that might help soothe some hard feelings.
Teachers learned the restorative justice techniques
from program director Polly Wolner, who trained 23 members of the staff
last October. Teachers have gradually worked the procedures into their
classrooms, some using circling once a week, others using it more often.
Guidance counsellor Pat Skar says the method helps
students reveal their problems to their peers. "You establish trust in
the circle," points out Skar. "That's when they'll truly be honest about
Wolner notes that the purpose of the training is to
inform teachers that they don't always have to be the enforcer in the
classroom. Students should learn to handle their own problems, she adds,
and some learn to at quite a young age.
"It's not about the teacher being the big, heavy hand
all the time," Wolner states. "It's surprising how young kids are when
they start to learn how to resolve issues themselves rather than
bringing it to the authorities."
Fighting back against bullies
Roselawn principal Kathy Gjesfjeld says a need for fresh discipline
ideas arose from the increasing incidents of playground bullying, which
does emotional damage not only to the parties involved but also
Circles can help solve problems that occur in the
classroom, on the playground, in the lunch room, or on the school bus,
Gjesfjeld explains. But teachers can use it for other means as well.
Kindergarten teacher Ingrid Rothenbuehler uses circling simply to help
students get to know their peers. "It really is a kind of tool for us to
get them to open up a little bit," she mentions.
Rothenbuehler recalls a simple issue that resulted
from a group of children who neglected to put away their toys. The
student who originally got out the toys left to do something else. The
other two students played for a while until one left. Finally the last
child left, leaving no students and a collection of toys. The incident
resulted in an insightful circling discussion about who was responsible
for putting away the toys, Rothenbuehler notes.
Kindergarten teacher Sandi Peterson says that while
the younger students might not grasp the entire circling concept, some
do appreciate the accountability they're left with.
"It seems like the kids feel like they've got some
control," Peterson informs. She adds that they're also more likely to
listen to each other as they face their peers in the circle.
The victim's voice
Circling is a form of victim-offender conferencing, an initiative
stemming from the Barron County Restorative Justice Program that was
implemented three years ago. The program uses victim-offender
conferencing (VOC) so that victims can inform offenders exactly how they
were effected by the act. On a county level, police officers, probation
officers, the district attorney or judges refer nonviolent cases to
Wolner and her staff. At the elementary school level, teachers and staff
are left to monitor the perpetrators of the mostly minor acts against
vulnerable children. Their hope is to curtail the incidents before they
escalate into larger crimes as adults.
Students gather in a circle, but can't speak until
they are given a talking piece, such as a toy microphone, a stuffed
animal or a foam apple. Once a student has the item, they may express
their problem or their feelings. Everyone gets to contribute their
opinion. The students may pass, knowing that eventually the talking
piece will return to them and they must contribute in some way.
Third grade teacher Audrey Brenholt says her class has
come a long way in their respectful treatment of each other as the year
has progressed. She opens her class's circle by having students say
something positive about someone in the class, and then addressing
issues they have with each other. When disciplinary action is necessary,
Brenholt says some students want to come down hard on their peers,
making her realize that they're not totally capable of dealing with
their own behaviours.
But circling is not meant to entirely diminish the
teacher's role as a disciplinarian, according to Gjesfjeld. "There are
times when there must be consequences," she attests. If children can
come to the realization that their actions can adversely affect their
friends, then the teachers are well on their way to a responsible
student body. "What really makes a difference for children is when their
peers tell them, 'Hey, we don't like this,'" Gjesfjeld adds. "As they
grow older they're more in tune to what their peers think than what
their parents think."
More school justice
Chetek teachers were trained as part of a federal Juvenile
Accountability Incentive Block Grant (JAIBG) written to implement
restorative justice practices in county school districts. Chetek's
portion of the grant reaches approximately $3,500. Wolner says the
teachers at Roselawn accepted the program's tactics with ease.
"The teachers in Chetek are so well-trained," she
explains. "They were already primed to take on this initiative because
their background is such that they want people to have harmony in their
The Restorative Justice Program is being funded this
year for the first time by Barron County. The county approved $50,000
for the program for the first six months of the year, with a contingency
of $50,000 for the remainder of the year.
The program is governed by a Board of Directors, 13
members of the county's communities. Over 100 volunteers participate in
the program's four initiatives: teen court, victim-impact panel,
victim-offender conferencing and restorative discipline.
Though it was a controversial issue for county
officials, Wolner says she is ecstatic that politicians see the
program's benefits to the community. "We've proven ourselves as being a
viable and valuable service for Barron County in terms of being able to
help kids not going through the justice system," Wolner explains. "We
save them tons of money."
In a University of Minnesota study of 22 community
Restorative Justice Programs, victim offender conferencing reduced
recidivism to 32 percent, and youth who re-offend were found to commit
less serious crimes. In the last two years the Barron County
victim-offender program has handled 303 cases, and in 201 of those
instances the case has been settled in lieu of prosecution, keeping
people out of jail and freeing up the justice system.
Wolner says she'd like to see the program take an even
more pronounced role in the county's schools. If schools help fund some
of the costs of the training, the program will continue to aid teachers
in implementing restorative discipline into their classrooms. Wolner
comments that Rice Lake, Cameron, Cumberland and Barron school districts
have already pledged money for the program this year.
While Chetek teachers are just beginning to grow
comfortable with the program's techniques, some teachers have already
witnessed its benefits. "This is something that is so powerful in
helping kids be responsible problem solvers," stresses the guidance
CLIMB Theatre, Inc., of Inver Grove Heights, Minn.,
will be performing two plays addressing the topic of bullying Tuesday,
March 18, at Roselawn Elementary. For more information on the plays "BUD
and the Bully" and "The Ride of Your Life," contact Roselawn at
By: Shane Samuels
For more information on restorative justice, visit the
web site www.bcrjp.org.