Circles Teach Students How to Talk It Out

by Linda Odette, School News Network at Kent ISD

Christine Gilman leads a session while Teresa Sanchez looks on
Christine Gilman leads a session while Teresa Sanchez looks on

Godfrey Lee Public Schools, MI — The Restorative Circle program being used to solve disputes among students at Godfrey Lee Middle School is pretty simple: sit down together and talk it out.

 

This makes more sense than the usual route of anger, fights and suspensions, says Christine Gilman, who directs the circle in its first year.

 

“If you just get suspended, the fight is still going to be going on in your head,” Gilman says. “When you come back to school, you’ll probably be 10 times madder than when you left.”

 

Instead of focusing on who did it and punishment, the group focuses on what happened and how to keep it from happening again, says Gilman, executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan, an organization that helps people solve problems using a mediator.

Teresa Sanchez Perez says the Restorative Circles program helps her look at things differently
Teresa Sanchez Perez says the Restorative Circles program helps her look at things differently

 

“Everyone has a different perspective,” Gilman says. “The important thing is to share what’s going on and how it made them feel.”

 

Before a session starts, Gilman explains to the participants she’s not there to get them in trouble.

 

“I’m not going to punish them, I’m just here to figure out how to stop bad behavior,” she says.

 

Dean of Students Brett Lambert says Gilman takes care of verbal or emotional disagreements and conflicts before they get to his office.

 

“At my level, it’s already to the point there’s going to be disciplinary action,” Lambert explains, adding that, for the students, knowing they’re not talking to him is less intimidating.

Inside the Circle

The program for the middle school’s sixth- through eighth-grade students began in October. Since then about 25 disputes regarding fighting, bullying, hair pulling — even acorn throwing — have come to the circle.

 

Gilman visits the school twice a week to meet with students, who are referred by teachers and administrators. State and local grants and area organizations pay for the program.

 

Grand Rapids Public Schools adopted a similar pilot program last fall in three schools, as a way of healing conflicts and reducing suspensions.

Aryonna Mullins listens during a Restorative Circle
Aryonna Mullins listens during a Restorative Circle

 

At a recent meeting at Godfrey Lee Middle School, four seventh-grade girls sit in a circle with Gilman. She breaks the ice by asking them about their weekends, then slides right into the issues that brought them to the circle with the help of a funny-looking, stuffed green frog. Whoever is holding the frog gets to speak.

 

Aydalaz Guzman talks about instigating trouble by calling a girl a name.

 

“I knew it was wrong,” Aydalaz says. “I wasn’t respecting my cousin’s friendship with her. I was telling her not to talk to her, not to hang out with her, not to be her friend.”

 

Her cousin Teresa Sanchez, also in the circle, found herself in the middle of the feud.

 

“I wanted to be both of their friends,” Teresa says. “I knew that they should get along.”

 

Mariah Quiles talks about a fight brewing between her and another girl. She came to the circle to discuss it, and the fight didn’t happen. Without the Restorative Circle, she says, “I’d have been suspended by now.”

Mariah Quiles says the circles have helped her stay out of trouble
Mariah Quiles says the circles have helped her stay out of trouble

 

Gilman lets the students do most of the talking.

 

“You give us advice, but we figure it out on our own,” says Mariah.

Making Apologies, Seeking Forgiveness

It surprises students when they sit down together to learn they are facing similar problems, Gilman says. She encourages them to ask for forgiveness and accept apologies.

 

“Accepting an apology is almost as good as giving an apology,” she says. “When you see that empathy, it’s really cool. I have seen the light go on.”

 

At the end of a session, Gilman writes up an agreement among the students.

 

“The best thing,” she says, “is while I’m typing up the agreement, they’re giggling, laughing and talking.”

 

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