Persell Uses Restorative Justice And Circles To Heal The Whole Child

Persell Middle School sixth grade teacher, Linda Campbell, listens to her students during a Community Building Circles.

“I was very impressed by your honesty about how you feel about things and what is going on at school,” said Persell Middle School teacher Linda Campbell to her class. “We’ll each pass the ball around and say what we learned yesterday. What I learned is that as a teacher I need to do better. I need to learn more and do more. For example, if I’m in the hall and I see something sometimes I’m in a hurry or may ignore it. I need to be better and follow through on it. That’s what I’m going to work on. Now let’s hear from each of you.”

“I learned don’t try to be someone you’re not because it’s their loss. You know you are a great person and other people will know that if you stay yourself,” said her student.

Each student in the class had an opportunity to say what they learned about each other, and the school, during Mrs. Campbell’s Community Building Circle, which the class has been doing for a few moments each day. A Community Building Circle uses a structural framework to build relationships and to address conflict within a community. Community Building Circles create safe spaces and build connections. Persell teachers are beginning to use Community Building Circles by asking questions or reflections of students. The teacher is the facilitator, but he or she also participates as an equal member of the group.

“I cannot tell you how beneficial these circles are,” said Mrs. Campbell. “It gives every student the opportunity to be heard and that they matter. This very well may be the only place they have that opportunity. As a teacher, I am learning things about them and myself. It gives everyone a way to learn more about one another and to see that we all struggle with many of the same obstacles. We come up with solutions and work together to help each other out. Another wonderful asset is learning empathy. We all want to be better and do better!”

“Sometimes Mrs. Campbell asks us what is our perspective on the question or if something is upsetting us that day,” said sixth-grader Abrielle Monaghan. “It also helps the adults in our school because they know what’s bothering us and what’s happening in the school that we may not talk about as much. It helps them realize what they have to focus on more and need to fix.”

Community Building Circles are just one part of the Restorative Justice movement that Persell Middle School is embarking on as an alternative to the typical punish or suspend method of discipline. The school has also initiated “Restorative Circles” when there is an issue or concern between specific students. The circles are peer-led with staff supervision and parents are sometimes invited to work out a solution and get to the root of the problem in a peaceful way. The programs have helped strengthen schools, prevent bullying and reduce student conflicts. Early-adopting districts have seen drastic reductions in suspension and expulsion rates and students say they are happier and feel safer.

“I heard about restorative justice on NPR,” said Persell Middle School Principal Phil Cammarata. “It is really all about restoring the peace instead of punishment. We ask the students, do you want to change your behavior or for us to punish you and every single time, they say they want to change their behavior. There may still be consequences involved but our goal is for student to understand why they are doing what they are doing and change that behavior in a positive way.”