2016-12-16 / Schools
Restorative Justice for all at Valley View
Suspensions have dropped by half at middle school
After last year’s passage of Assembly Bill 420 restricting infractions for which students may be suspended from school, many teachers paused to ask themselves, “What do we do with students who are defiant?”
At Valley View Middle School, English teacher Tracie Bowden and foreign-language instructor Kathleen Erickson have found what they say is a great solution: using mediation in a program called Restorative Justice.
“We have an outstanding group of students,” Erickson said of her sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who work with their peers to create a positive climate on campus.
Principal Michael Hall said the students in the program are trained to run peer panels, mediations and friendship circles.
In August, “Circles,” an episode of HBO’s high-school-set series “Vice Principals,” made comedic hay out of conflict-resolution circles.
But at Valley View, mediation circles are no laughing matter, as they are proving very effective, the principal said.
“Our Restorative Justice program is still in the infancy stages and has already made a tremendous impact on our school,” Hall said. “To date, our suspensions have been cut in half, from 77 incidents to 34 incidents (last year).”
Bowden said kids who are suspended are five times more likely to drop out of school when they’re older.
She and Erickson have trained 26 students in conflict resolution at Valley View, where they serve as mediators between students who are in conflict with each other.
“We also do mentorships in which we pair students with other students to give them a hand on schoolwork or to welcome and support new students to our school,” Bowden said.
The student support team has a lunch table in the multipurpose that is inclusive and welcomes new students to be part of the school community.
“Our staff works really hard to be inclusive and be good models with good behavior. We respect one another,” Erickson said. “What matters is we live in a community that works together. That’s part of our Valley View culture.”
‘A positive climate’
Two years ago, Erickson and Bowden didn’t know each other. A California Teachers Association article on peer panels, written by a Northern California educator, brought them together.
The two had independently read the article and, unbeknownst to each other, brought the article to the same administrator’s attention. The administrator suggested that Bowden and Erickson get together to explore how peer panels might best serve Valley View.
An international restorative justice expert from Northern California, who trains people in South Africa and Australia, was then invited to meet with the teachers. Erickson and Bowden devised the mentorship program, and students can choose to take Restorative Justice for homeroom or as 15-minute class electives.
The students come up with action plans with those they are mentoring, breaking objectives down into manageable goals, which can mean anything from raising algebra grades to improving a friendship.
“The kids are trained in circle groups, which are small weekly groups that meet to discuss various topics of importance to our kids,” Bowden said.
The mediation portion of the program teaches active listening, paraphrasing and restating to help them work out the problem.
Another component involves an inclusive lunch table where the kids go out of their way to invite a new student or an ostracized kid to join them.
“That makes my heart happy to see,” Erickson said.
“It’s for everybody,” Bowden added. “We have kids who are stumbling, but we also have kids who are OK but need an extra push in one specific area.”
The long view
Hall said he feels heartened by Restorative Justice’s early results.
“When students (feel) connected, they will want to (stay at) school and want to do well,” the principal said.
Bowden and Erickson have no qualms about putting in extra time and research to develop Restorative Justice.
“Instead of getting tired of it, we just get more passionate seeing the successes of our own students,” said Erickson, who believes the program will resonate well beyond the middle school journey.
“Kids are struggling with strategies and how to solve problems in a constructive manner. They can use the skills they are learning forever. These are life skills.”