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Circling Forward for a Positive School Climate

Guest Writers: Cass Lake-Bena Middle School Staff

April 9, 2019

Students talking in a circle on the floor

There was trouble brewing between two sixth-grade girls. It started with rumors being spread through social media. Quickly, gossip travelled in school. There were hurt feelings and some fear of retaliation. Others were getting involved. Then, something surprising happened. The girls approached the school’s behavior interventionist and asked for a circle. (A circle is a restorative practice that people can use to develop relationships and build community or to respond to harm and conflicts.) The behavior interventionist and guidance counselor met individually with the girls involved, did some planning, and then began the circle process. Each girl had a chance to speak her truth and listen to the others. The problem was resolved, peacefully.

This story is real...and only one example of how Cass Lake-Bena Schools—in this instance, Cass Lake-Bena Middle School—are changing school climate by working with students proactively to develop conflict resolution skills. The school district recognized that an improved school climate for all buildings is necessary to reap greater academic growth for all.

Cass Lake-Bena School District has entered into an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Education’s School Safety Technical Assistance Center to be part of a school climate pilot project. The state is providing technical support to Cass Lake-Bena Schools and four other districts (Red Lake School District, Blackduck School District, Bemidji Area Schools and Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School) as each group works to improve student outcomes. The process includes reviewing and possibly reframing policies that impact student discipline, and selecting and implementing either social emotional learning (SEL) or restorative practices as a method for improvement.

Cass Lake-Bena Middle School began the restorative practices journey during the 2017-18 school year. The school began by developing an understanding of what restorative practices are, and then training some staff in the use of restorative language, chats, and circles. As part of the middle school’s comprehensive needs assessment in March and April 2018, leadership teams determined a need to build stronger relationships with students and families, and recognized that restorative practices could be a vehicle to do so.

Talking circles play an important role in restorative practices. Circles follow a formal structure. There is a circle leader (or keeper) who poses questions for the group to discuss. There are agreements made as to how members of the circle will conduct themselves. Those agreements generally include being respectful, listening, speaking truth, maintaining confidentiality, and having the right to pass without speaking. Participants use a talking piece and only the person with the talking piece may speak. Circles are used to build community, teach, resolve conflict and repair harm. Staff and students alike are participating in circles at Cass Lake-Bena Middle School.

Another key component of restorative practices is learning to recognize the impact of one’s actions. When someone acts out, their actions interfere with others’ ability to do their job (learn, teach) or cause others to feel unsafe. If all parties agree, a circle to repair harm can be conducted. During circles to repair harm, the one who caused the issue hears from those harmed by the impact of the action. The person who harmed others is then given the opportunity to repair the harm and make right whatever damage that was caused. Students take responsibility for and learn from their behavior.

The middle school is in the beginning stages of using restorative practices. While some staff have been trained, others still need training in conducting circles and holding restorative chats. We are seeing impact of the work—school climate is starting to improve. We know we have more to accomplish and look forward to working with our community as we grow. We are seeing more situations like the one described in the opening paragraph—where students are willing to work out their issues without fighting. When that happens, we all benefit.