Safer Schools . . . Listen to Students

“We need mood detectors, not metal detectors.”
In memory of 15-year-old George Carter,
Co-founder of Rethinking Schools – New Orleans

Before the latest horrific school shooting, Counselors Not Cops and Restorative Justice represent key demands advocated by student activists. In contrast to conflict resolution efforts, pro-active building circles are designed to knit together the school community and provide an opportunity for students to talk through mundane issues to burning concerns. These talking circles can flag deep problems and often resolve problems before they explode. Now in school districts across the country, prioritizing and funding restorative practices are likely to be undercut by massive spending for metal detectors and other security systems. Our 2017 Listening Project sought to learn what students thought about talking circles. Their experiences and recommendations hold even greater significance as the debate intensifies on to make schools safe.   

The photo above shows a dozen or more students sitting in a talking circle as they wait their turn to receive a talking piece to respond to a topic raised by a circle-keeper, usually a teacher or counselor. A student may describe a feeling, express an opinion, move the conversation in another direction, or decide not to say anything in this first round or subsequent ones. Some circles are conducted as a quick check-in but deeper conversations happen regularly during an entire class period. These building circles often will begin with an inspirational quote, introducing the significance of the talking piece used, and follow other indigenous traditions. Circles represent a safe space where divergent views are respected and not judged.

This seemingly simple process of listening and learning from others can have a profound impact. The equalitarian nature of the circle with no beginning or end is designed to create a sense of connectedness and build relationships that may improve the overall school atmosphere. Another potential benefit of pro-active circles is to resolve misunderstandings, rumors or conflicts and avoid responsive or healing circles. Attention tends to be focused on reactive circles and other restorative justice practices that are intended to replace zero tolerance policies and reduce the school-to-prison pipeline. Research studies and school district evaluations give less weight to talking circles and in these assessments that we have reviewed, only a handful of quotes by students are included.

Do students believe in the value of circles, dismiss them as childish or mushy kumbaya, or see this process as effective in stopping punitive discipline policies and the school-to-prison pipeline? Individual interviews with students at public high schools large and small as well as our national online scan provide a glimpse at youth perspectives. Not even the most ‘woke’ teacher or restorative justice coordinator can speak for the primary stakeholders in the classroom. What follows are the reflections and recommendations of approximately 50 students from over 15 states.

In my opinion it doesn’t matter how welcoming the school is, I think you never can get through a time period or get to a place when you don’t need community building things. I have a lot of classes where there is a positive energy that don’t use circles, but that doesn’t say they are not necessary. – Tara, Maryland HS Senior

The vast majority of students described talking circles in a positive light. 

  • a different kind of smart
  • let out emotions
  • reading people’s feelings
  • actually, listen
  • confidence
  • help each other out
  • respect each other’s opinions
  • listen with your heart, think with your heart
  • feel more stress-free
  • more sociable
  • feel like I’m heard
  • helps me deal with people and social situations and life

Today’s students represent the first generation to gain these face-to-face interpersonal skills that are regarded by some as even more important given the dominance of digital human interactions. In the words of one Detroit high school student:

Everybody is changing into a better person when they have these small circles. I think all of us have learned to see in a different way and I treat people differently. The circle has made me want to go out now to the public and speak and do some good…you know help change the world!

Not all students had good things to say, for example, one 10th grader said: “Circles aren’t a waste of time, but they are too scripted and boring.” Student reflections are organized into the following categories:

          • Creating Camaraderie
          • Connecting with School Staff
          • Confronting Controversy and Crisis
          • Gaining Skills and Confidence
          • Applying Circles Beyond School

Among the recommendations included in this report:     

Invest $20 million to expand Restorative Justice in [NYC] public schools…The city’s investment in Restorative Justice in schools is less than $1 million. You don’t build safe and supportive schools by suspending and criminalizing students. You build safe and supportive schools by investing in Restorative Justice to develop strong relationships between students, educators, and parents and by adopting policies that create a fair and just approach to discipline. Our city must stop investing in the school-to-prison pipeline and start investing in our future. If all Black Lives Matter, it is time for our schools to treat us all with dignity and respect. -Zaire and Miajia, NYC HS Students

Read Safer Schools . . . Students Talk About Talking Circles that includes links to Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, Dignity in Schools, Padres & Jovenes Unidos and other multi-general advocacy organizations. The Youth Activism Project plans another student listening project about conflict circles and other restorative justice practices. We are continually learning so please guide us. 

Having a teacher in circle we can connect in a personal way…I’ve gained a lot more friends. I’ve gained more confidence. I’m a little bit more outgoing.   ~ Laris (testifying at the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education)

 

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