by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Kansas is on the leading edge when it comes to creative ideas for classroom discipline, and the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (KIPCOR) at Bethel College is helping make that concrete.
Over the past three years, KIPCOR staff have led a number of Restorative Schools Initiative trainings – aimed at public school teachers, administrators and social workers – on “classroom discipline and school climate.”
The trainings introduced and began to teach restorative practices that align with what’s called in Kansas MTSS, or Multi-Tier System of Supports – a continuum of responses to students’ academic and behavioral needs.
Restorative practices are first and foremost about healing relationships. They are not, said KIPCOR Director Gary Flory, “[part of] the kind of discipline that schools typically use.”
They are what KIPCOR is about. And because Flory has a particular interest in public school issues and how to bring restorative practices into that environment, he has for the past number of years been looking for ways to get KIPCOR more directly involved in schools.
About six years ago, at the same time as Flory was beginning to explore the possibility of writing a grant to The New Society Foundation for a school-based initiative, Kent Reed, the school counseling liaison for the Kansas State Department of Education, came to Flory with a proposal.
Kansas was one of 11 states to receive an “S3 grant” (S3 refers to a program called Safe and Supportive Schools). Reed, who is trained as a teacher and worked at the Topeka Peace Center before coming to KSDE, had been to one of Flory’s restorative justice trainings.
He proposed that KIPCOR apply to the state for a three-year grant to do the same kind of thing for school personnel. KIPCOR successfully did so.
The overall goal, Flory said, is “to help [KSDE] develop material for alternative disciplinary models and, at a state level, to try to find alternatives to suspension and expulsion.”
At a basic level, he adds, it’s about “getting kids accustomed to a climate in which you’re talking about restorative practices.”
Jan Petersen, a member of KIPCOR’s training team for school personnel, is a school psychologist at Wichita West High School.
At a one-day training in Wichita in March, she told the group of social workers, teachers and administrators about Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS), or what she called “a positive transformation of my heart. We desperately need paradigm shifts in how we relate to each other and to our students.
“Traditional discipline,” she went on, “means dealing with one problem or one student at a time: blaming, shaming, excluding, removing. The first two are often visited on teachers by parents, media and the community, and it gets passed along to students.
“PBIS is research-, relationship- and strength-based. [It’s been proven that] people are happier and more cooperative when those in authority are doing things ‘with,’ which is restorative, rather than ‘to,’ which is punitive.
“I’m passionate about sticking with the ‘with,’ connecting with people – doing what I can to create a positive school climate.”
Typical for a one-day training, the team – Flory, Petersen, Jenny Muret-Bate, principal of The Community Learning Center, an alternative school in Winfield, Alison Replogle, an elementary school counselor for Smoky Valley USD, Lindsborg, and Rob Simon, currently working alongside Petersen on restorative practices at Wichita West – led the group in experiencing some restorative practices.
They learned about, and then implemented with supplied discussion questions, a “talking circle” and a “dialogue circle.”
Both employ a talking stick – any object (often an actual stick; sometimes, as in Replogle’s case, a koosh ball) that gets passed around and that allows only the person holding it to speak.
These practices “create a safe space for people to talk, where they have a chance to talk and an obligation to listen,” Flory said. “When students become accustomed to using the circle process, then they will ask to use it, because they know it works. It promotes better listening and a sense of equality, and enables everybody to participate.”
The dialogue circle differs from the talking circle in requiring each person to restate and reflect what they heard from the person who talked before them.
This “puts some onus on the listener, who then will say whether they agree or disagree but not say why,” Flory said. “This is a technique to use with classes or groups of students when you think they are not listening carefully to each other.”
One of the participants, who was encountering the dialogue circle for the first time and declared it “awesome,” wanted to know: “When do you use this method?”
“All the time,” said Muret-Bate. “For check-ins. For problems or issues. When class is not going well. When the class will not shut up. Sometimes it’s planned and sometimes the kids will ask for it.”
Replogle added, “I use it for building climate – for building relationships.”
She also described a specific situation involving a teacher accused of sexual misconduct when “a circle formed in order for middle-school kids to process. They had done this [with Replogle’s training] all throughout elementary school, so they knew the ground rules and how to do it.”
“Using circles leads to creating connections,” said Petersen, “which leads to creating feelings of belonging, of being important.”
The KIPCOR team led nearly a dozen workshops, some one-day and some two-day, over the course of the three-year grant. The final training of the grant cycle took place May 31 on the Bethel campus with about 100 teachers, administrators and school social workers attending.
Whitney Fast, a Bethel graduate and currently a school social worker at Santa Fe and Chisholm Middle Schools in Newton, took the training last December in Lawrence.
“I took a class in interpersonal negotiation and mediation while I was at Bethel,” she said, “so I had seen alternative ways of dealing with conflict.”
When Fast’s mother, a high school counselor in Moundridge, sent her the web link to learn more about the Restorative Schools Initiative, she was interested enough to follow up and then sign up.
“I felt good about attending because it was KIPCOR,” she said, “and it was related to my job.
“It’s important to focus on repairing relationships,” Fast continued. “The education system tends to focus more punitively – ‘You broke the rules’ and the consequences – rather than on making the perpetrator part of the process of repair.
“I’m always looking for positive ways to influence the [school] culture and system.”
Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2013-14 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2013-14. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu
For more about the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, see www.kipcor.org/.