School peacemaking program receives $50K

Grant money is going toward helping students at area high schools and middle schools get along.

The Steelcase Foundation recently awarded $50,000 to the nonprofit Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan, 678 Front Ave. NW, Grand Rapids. The center will use the money to further develop its restorative justice program in three area schools for the next two years.

The center, celebrating its 30th anniversary this fall with a special fundraiser Oct. 20, focuses on solving disputes for individuals and organizations, said Christine Gilman, executive director.

“We’re a community dispute resolution center,” she said. “There are 18 centers across the state. We provide conflict resolution services and training.

“So, if people are arguing or in a lawsuit and they can’t agree on the outcome … when people are (getting) a divorce … we provide low-cost conflict resolution.”

The grant will focus on the restorative justice program at Lee Middle School in Wyoming, Kelloggsville Middle School and Wyoming High School.

“This is the first year we were in Wyoming High School and Kelloggsville, and the third year we were at Lee,” Gilman said. “It’s been roughly the same number of student participants. It’s been somewhat consistent. And some of them are pretty minor. A lot of them are friendship conflicts.”

The program, run by paid employees of the center, deals with a variety of student-teacher and peer conflicts. These conflicts can involve physical fights, discipline issues, social media disputes or even course work.

School conflicts are resolved in what the center calls restorative circles, Gilman said. Students can request them, or teachers and administrators can assign them.

“Circles are when a facilitator sits down with individuals with a conflict, so it either is those involved or witnesses or others affected. They talk about four things: what happened, who was harmed, how do we repair the harm, what can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Gilman said.

“The participants come up with a plan, and the facilitator helps by asking open-ended questions to get through the process, and then helps them draw up a restorative plan.”

The grant will help provide facilitators in each school for the next two school years. The grant also funds training to have those three facilitators licensed by the International Institute of Restorative Practices.

Gilman said an outside facilitator is necessary because it feels neutral and students feel more like they are being heard.

“During the normal school discipline process, the kid does something wrong, goes to the vice principal’s office (and) they determine what the punishment is,” she said.

“But when they’re given the opportunity to sit in the circle, it gives the power to the person who was hurt, so they’re able to take part in the process and talk to and about the person who harmed them. They’re given a voice in the process.”

In traditional situations with a student counselor, the students are usually separated. This can sometimes lead to the victim being not really taken care of in the process, Gilman said, adding that the student who committed the harm is generally sent home, and therefore isolated and with access to social media, allowing things to get even worse.

That’s not the case with restorative circles, she said.

“We always make sure the person who was harmed isn’t going to be re-harmed. … I’ve seen a sense of relief come to them through the process,” she said.

“I did one with some sixth-graders where the person who’d been harmed was afraid to go to class. And after the first circle, they agreed to come back, and we were going to have lunch together once a week until things calmed down. You could see the change. It was pretty cool.”

Gilman hopes the circles create a ripple effect that allows the students to eventually deal with conflicts in healthier ways on their own.

“We try to avoid suspension. That’s the whole idea,” she said.

Gilman said that a student who is suspended once is twice as likely to drop out or drop down a grade. According to Breaking Schools’ Rules, a 2011 report by The CSG Justice Center in partnership with the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University, it’s harder for minority students.

“(The report) also found that minority students and students receiving special education are significantly more likely to be suspended. That rate is why we got into this, to cut down on suspensions overall,” she said.

This year, the three schools had 142 circles, averting about 398 suspension days, Gilman said.

“Conflict is inevitable, but conflict can be a great opportunity for learning,” she said. “It improves their communication skills, but also their ability handle conflict in general.”

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