Restorative justice methods trickle down to playground

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 their feelings."

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 bystanders.

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 classrooms."

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 counsellor Skar.

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 924-2226.

By: Shane Samuels
For more information on restorative justice, visit the web site