When 15-year-old Marcia (not her real name) got caught selling marijuana and prescription pills, she was given the opportunity to go through the Carlton County Restorative Justice program rather than the juvenile criminal justice system.

The RJ program requires offenders to participate in a “sentencing circle” with their own parent or support system, the victims of the crime, trained community members and one or two “circle keepers,” who lead the group.

They literally sit in a circle and talk. Offender. Victim. Community members.

“It’s been life changing and really helped me learn how many people I’ve affected: my family, friends, school, community,” said Marcia.

Now her school, the Cloquet Area Alternative Education Program based at Garfield school, is becoming a “whole Restorative Practices school” - meaning RP will be a part of every facet of the school from classroom culture to discipline - and Marcia is thrilled.

So is CAAEP Principal Connie Hyde. Hyde had her first encounter with an RJ circle when she was the assistant principal at Cloquet High School.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” she said. “It left a mark on me in terms of ‘this is what we should be doing with all kids, in all the schools.’”

Therefore, when she became part of the conversation about bringing Restorative Practices into the schools, Hyde embraced it.

“If we’re going to reach the whole child, particularly in an alternative program [such as CAAEP], then it fits exactly our vision here,” she said.

It wasn’t an impulse move. CAAEP administrators began working with the RJ program almost a year ago.

Everyone from probation to school administration to parents realized that simply sending kids home from school when they got in trouble didn’t work: It doesn’t teach them to behave any differently, for many it’s just more time to play video games or get into more trouble because they’re unsupervised.

“Restorative Justice is built on the foundation of relationships and always incorporating your community, victim and offender voices,” explained Carlton County RJ coordinator Carrie Manty. “In the classroom, it’s your peer group, your teachers that you harm [when a person acts out].”

Hyde explained that CAAEP was already implementing/teaching the Boys Town program, which teaches students skills for “how to appropriately react to social situations and interactions, and the RP program complements that skills program.

“It’s a natural next step to sit down and talk this stuff out,” Hyde said, rattling off scenarios ranging from bullying to people who simply aren’t getting along. “It’s hard. It’s hard as adults, but if we can reach these kids at these young ages to learn these skills and abilities and have the self confidence to use them, I foresee our discipline issues being reduced quite a bit.”

CAAEP is the first Carlton County school to be a Restorative school, and possibly the first school in the state to go “whole RP,” said RJ trainer and consultant Larraine Mickelson.

“To make that commitment, to go whole school, means so many integrated pieces have to go together to make it work,” Mickelson explained. “It’s not just ‘Oh great, we’re doing circles in school.’ We’re building in multiple layers of prevention. And it’s not just for students, it’s also for staff. Remember, this is a workplace too.”

Some 24 CAAEP staff members went through RP training at the end of August in Cloquet, and now understand and know how to implement Restorative Practices.

Then entire school population - including close to 90 students - participated in the official RP kick-off Wednesday, Sept. 14, at CAAEP.

After Minnesota-based RJ expert and circle trainer Kay Pranis talked about how circles are used, Hyde said the kids and adults made a huge circle and the adults pledged their support to the students.

“It was really powerful,” Hyde said.

Next the students broke off into circle groups with trained circle keepers while the staff stayed and had more training the Pranis. Later the teachers joined the students to work on setting values and circle guidelines for the school and the different classes.

“It all sounds like sunshine, flowers and unicorns, but the reality is - will this work for everyone? No,” said Hyde. “You’ll always have people who just refuse to budge, who think it’s ridiculous, that ‘that kid needs to burn for what he did.’ It is our hope that we can show people there’s another way. It doesn’t have to be 10 weeks of detention.”

Any discipline should take the best long-term interest of the child into account, Hyde added, noting that discipline actually means “to teach.”

“It’s not that he stuck gum into someone’s hair and he needs to pay,” she said. “It’s what is the best thing we can teach him? Sometimes we forget that.”

Restorative Practices do include accountability, Manty stressed. It’s all about accountability, about repairing harm done, along with talking about what happened honestly and openly.

“In order to affect or repair, you have to involve your peers, the teacher in the room because it was their day that was interrupted,” Manty said.

However, she explained, instead of asking a kid “What were you thinking?” or “Why did you do that?” the RP way would be to consider a child’s known adverse childhood experiences, culture and other background factors and ask, “What happened to you and what do you need because of your story?” without getting involved in a blaming scenario. Then the offender and the group need to figure out how he or she will fix it with the person they hurt.

Sometimes those people don’t accept the offender’s attempts to apologize, or make amends. Then the offender has to learn how to move on, Hyde said, not always an easy thing either.

Mickelson said they will soon train some of the students to become “peer ambassadors” for RP, so they can take extra steps to help their fellow students and build their own skills at the same time. The school is already doing a mentorship program between its younger and older students (CAAEP serves kindergarten through 12th grade).

Although accountability is critical, Mickelson pointed out that it shouldn’t be considered a bad thing to talk to a person who’s done something wrong, or give them a hug.

“Why are we so afraid of that piece in our culture?” she said. “It’s OK to pull out our guns, but it’s not OK to say ‘Let’s hug a kid today?’”

The RJ program and philosophy certainly seems to have helped Marcia, a remarkably well spoken and thoughtful teenager who doesn’t shy away when asked about past mistakes, even on the phone to a reporter.

Being in the RJ program made her grow up and take responsibility, something she said is a good thing.

“Before I really didn’t think. Nothing really went through my mind,” she said, explaining that in addition to the circle meetings, she was required to participate in an RJ 101 course and go to a “jail talk,” where she talked with offenders about their life stories “and stuff.”

“I think [having Restorative Practices school] will really help the students get the perspective, the philosophy and learn the same way I have and get something positive out of it,” she said, adding that some of her classes have already used the circle process. “It’s a lot better than sitting there screaming at each other.”

Hyde stressed that Restorative Practices are not only for alternative programs.

“Yes, we were ready, we were ripe for it,” she said. “But I want to be clear it’s not just for ‘those kids.’ We are just a starting point.”