Six student fights this school year, and three in the last week, prompted Wilde Lake High School Principal Rick Wilson to start a conversation with parents.
In the early December letter to parents, Wilson discussed “a very visible fight” a few days prior and explained how many of the recent altercations spawned from conflicts in the community, often involving students from other schools, The Baltimore Sun reports.
He asked parents to have a conversation with their kids.
“I kindly ask that you take some time . . . to speak with your children and remind them that the adults in their lives are here to provide for their safety and to guide them through difficult situations,” Wilson said in the letter. “We have trained personnel throughout the building if he or she feels the need to talk to a trusted adult.”
The call for communication reflects the Howard County school district’s shifting approach to student discipline and other school issues that’s moving away from punishments toward “restorative justice” practices focused on repairing relationships.
According to the Sun:
To prevent recurring acts of violence, Kevin Gilbert, director of diversity, equity and inclusion, said his office is working to expand relationship-building skills, known as restorative justice practices, and train staff at more schools. These practices teach students how to create and maintain healthy relationships with their peers, focusing on social and emotional development.
Since 2012, 34 schools have been in the process of implementing restorative practices, mostly at the middle and high school level. The process to fully implement and change culture in all county schools could take three to five years, Gilbert said.
Behavioral support specialist Rosanne Wilson explained how it works.
“A lot of times, schools want training on the discipline part of restorative practices [and] want to know how to facilitate a circle that brings the victim and the offender together, so that both can tell their story,” she said. “Then, they come up with a means for some kind of an agreement to say this is how we’re going to move forward so that this doesn’t happen again.”
The district is working with the Howard County Education Association teachers union and the Community Justice for Youth Institute in Chicago to train educators on restorative practices like talking circles, which allow students to resolve conflicts through discussions to prevent or resolve incidents.
“The emphasis in the training was on how the implementation of peace circles can build trust, promote social and emotional well-being and facilitate harmonious relationships,” said HCEA President Colleen Morris. “Just like teaching academic subjects requires planning, preparation and knowledge of students, peace circle implementation relies on well-trained facilitators to insure a safe learning environment is created.”
District spokesman Brian Bassett noted “The most effective way to prevent a physical altercation before it happens is through conversation.”
Joseph E. Davis, scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and publisher of The Hedgehog Review, quotes Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sherry Turkle on the critical importance of conversation:
But it is in this type of conversation—where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another—that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.
Howard County schools are trying to rebuild this sort of conversation through restorative circles in which students deal honestly with each other and repair the damage caused by a slight or a fight.