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The power of a circle

Some might wonder why an alternative school — which students are more likely to attend because of behavioral issues or other risk factors — would reject strict discipline in favor of a process that uses circles of people instead.

That's exactly what the Cloquet Area Alternative Education Program has been doing for the past year. On Wednesday, the staff and students at CAAEP celebrated the new school year by standing in a giant circle. It was both a symbol of and a commitment to continuing their work on transforming the culture of the alternative K-12 school through restorative practices.

Instead of punishing students, restorative practices (RP) works to repair harm or even prevent it (versus restorative justice, RJ, which always comes after a crime is committed). RP circles usually include all the parties affected by an injustice. If a student disrupts a classroom with his or her behavior, the circle will include the student and teacher, as well as some classmates. They talk about what happened, how they were affected, and what should be done to repair the harm.

Clay, a student ambassador at CAAEP, figures going into an RP circle makes a person more accountable for his or her behavior.

"When you go into a circle, it feels like you gotta figure something out," Clay said. "It makes it a bigger situation, because people can see it their way and the other way."

Sitting in a circle with those you may have been hurt by your actions is tough, but worth it, he said.

"Rather than staying after school, it's better to resolve it on the spot and look at it with everyone," he said. "We're gonna look at it as adults and figure it out. It's still an accountable way to get it done. Rather than someone getting detention and they get off scot-free."

Restorative practices can also be used to educate, and build relationships, with the goal of actually preventing harm and/or establishing solid relationships that will help resolve a situation, should an issue arise. CAAEP is a restorative school, which means they are implementing the philosophy and practices of RP into every part of the school, from students to staff, from morning to night, for teaching and resolving issues.

"To me it just makes sense," said CAAEP Principal Connie Hyde. "We want kids to practice 'adulting' before they have to be adults. We want kids to be honest and open with their emotions. We also want kids to understand multiple perspectives other than their own and [restorative practices] did that."

Hyde said one thing she didn't hear much last year when talking to students in her office was the "she just hates me" explanation.

"I used to hear that all the time, but because we've done so many circles — group circles, classroom circles, homeroom circles — that's not even a thing now," she said. "The kids are looking at relationships in a different way. They're not so myopic. It's not so much of an 'us against them' mentality' as it was before."

The switch last school year from the more traditional "bad behavior = punishment" discipline style to a restorative practices culture at CAAEP has already yielded significant and measurable results.

Destruction of property went down 86 percent compared to the year before. Cell phone issues were down 81 percent. Physical bullying was down 71 percent and verbal bullying went down 64 percent. The number of total incidents decreased by 58 percent.

But the results go beyond the numbers. Staff members have noted better relationships between each other and students, and a more peaceful vibe in the building. Students say the same thing in surveys conducted throughout the year.

When now 17-year-old Raihlee switched to CAAEP as a freshman, she was without her close friends, alone at a new school.

"When you're at a public school and you have to go to an alternative school, all of a sudden people start labeling you — you're stupid; you're unfit; you're this and that — and that's a lot of what I had to deal with when I started here," Raihlee said.

Things got better. Some of the other girls helped her settle in and she gradually gained confidence and new friends.

Raihlee volunteered to be a student ambassador for the RP program last year as a junior. That meant completing the Ambassador Orientation and Think First Training. Student ambassadors had significant involvement in welcoming and explaining the circle process to new students throughout the year, and offered peer support.

"It was awesome because I got to be the one who makes friends with everybody, be that person that someone goes to when they're in a hard situation," she said.

The culture at the school actually changed through RP, Raihlee asserted.

"Everyone before was so like, 'he did this, she did that,' all rumors and gossip," she said. "With this, you can actually talk about it if you have a problem or conflict with somebody. And even if everything isn't resolved completely, at least you have an understanding of why actions or words were said."

As an example, Raihlee talked about how she used to strongly want to leave the room if a certain schoolmate was there, or cross the hallway if that person was coming down the other side. They talked about it in circle.

"Even though we still have our problems, it's nice to know that I can be here and they can be here in peace too," she said. "There's not the tension anymore."

Restorative Practices coordinator Carrie Manty pointed out that Raihlee is describing how RP brings together the people most affected by something.

"How do we resolve something if we aren't together?" she said, praising both Raihlee and Clay for their work as student ambassadors last year.

"I watched them in action many times last year, said Manty. "They were very supportive of their peers when there was conflict going on."

Clay said restorative practices help him deal "with people, and social situations and life."

"It helped me just calm down and get things figured out," Clay said. "I don't know how it was for other kids, we all live in different shoes. But it helped me. I think it would help other kids."

Manty works part-time for the Carlton County Restorative Justice Program, and was the main liaison with CAAEP last year. Laraine Mickelson, RJ trainer and consultant, helped design and implement the program, and is also a big part of the current efforts to ensure it will be sustainable in the future. Many other community volunteers have also spent many hours working with students and staff at the school.

"We think this is a huge way to prevent crime from happening," said Mickelson. "If these students are learning these skills in school — social skills, how to manage their behavior and their emotions, how to respond to conflicts in school — then maybe they're not going to commit a crime. Maybe they'll be able to navigate things better at home and not have this pattern of negative behavior that's gonna get them into the criminal justice system later on."

Traditional punishments like detention and suspension weren't really working, she pointed out.

"The data shows that when we go the punitive route, it's rare that any learning occurs as a result," Mickelson said. "You send a kid home, they play on their PlayStation all day versus learning about the behavior that brought them to that point (through RP)."

Manty hopes the things kids are learning at CAAEP will be part of how they live the rest of their lives.

She sees the proof of that in Clay and Raihlee, and in the unrehearsed but heartfelt things they said in their interview with the Pine Journal.

Clay talked about crime and punishment and his thoughts on learning from mistakes.

"I think when you're able to have a chance to make up for your mistakes, it's a great thing," Clay said. "Some people get in trouble and go to jail. They don't have a chance to do something [to repair the damage] because they're sitting in jail. It helps people if they're able to help themselves, you know?"

Raihlee talked about the RP process, in a way that was more adult than many grown-ups have experienced.

"If you have a problem with a teacher, instead of bad-mouthing them, you can just ask for a circle," she said. "I think that's pretty awesome that we're able to do that, instead of just being what everyone says ALC (CAAEP) is — a bunch of kids that just don't care."

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