Restorative Practices: My Experience with Student-Led Healing Circles

Restorative Practices: My Experience with Student-Led Healing Circles

In November of last year, I was invited by Derrick Brown, Principal of the Young Men’s Leadership Academy (YMLA) and a Cohort 3 member of UP Partnership’s Restorative Practices Collaborative (RPC), to sit in on a restorative justice healing circle. Principal Brown began implementing healing circles in his school after a visit to Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) alongside UP Partnership staff and other Bexar County community members.

Going into the visit, he believed punitive discipline – such as in school or out of school suspensions – was how distracting behaviors should be addressed. The visit to OUSD, however, helped him realize there are other ways to think about addressing behaviors and getting to the root cause of why students act the way they do in situations.

I asked him if there was one moment, one thing that made the benefits of restorative justice clear and he told me that no school in OUSD had a security guard on campus.

“That was a real eye opener,” he explained. “We visited OUSD a few months after the Uvalde school shooting and I was shocked that no campus in the district had security guards because they don’t need them. Students have ways to make amends, accept differences and work through difficult situations in a healing manner and I want my school to be that way as well.”

Brown’s passion and enthusiasm about a different approach to discipline is now obvious when you listen to him speak about restorative justice and the impact it has already had on the young men who attend YMLA. He is the same way when he talks about the impact he wants to have on his students and the school itself.

The hallways of the YMLA are a testament to the past and the possibilities of the future. The school building itself was one of the first public schools in San Antonio to open its doors and from 1933 until the end of the 1969-1970 school year, it was known as Wheatley High School, an all Black school. The school went through a few name changes —in 1972, it became Emerson Middle School and was renamed Wheatley High School in 1988 — before the Young Men’s Leadership Academy opened in 2015 and the name was changed to reflect the new school.

Pictures of the school throughout the years, as well as those of Black leaders, both nationally and locally, remind us that we have come a long way, but there is still much to do. Hanging from the walls in every hallway are pennant flags from colleges and universities across the nation — a daily visual reminder that the future is wide open for the young men at the school.

As we neared the door to the healing circle room, Principal Brown explained that he set up his room exactly like a school at OUSD had theirs set up. He wants the space to be inviting, calming, somewhere where the outside world fades away so students can fully focus on being present during circle time.

There are two doors to the room — one you enter through and the other you exit through. The idea is students walk into the room with their anger, hurt, disagreements but, when they exit, they leave all of those negative thoughts and feelings behind and emerge heard, healed and with the knowledge of how to handle difficult situations in the future.

Walking through the entrance door, I was no longer in a school hallway but, rather, in a tranquil oasis of calm and relaxation. The walls of the room are draped with see through white curtains and strings of white lights. There are plants throughout the space and an indoor water fountain that provides the comfort of hearing running water.

“It is a unique and welcoming environment and a calming place because it is filled with positive energy,” said one 6th grade student that participated in the circle.

I have, previously, taken part in healing circles with adults, but none in a space like Principal Brown created and none that included students. The reason that day’s circle was being held was to address an argument that happened between three students during lunch time that resulted in name calling.

In the center of the room, there are twelve pillows arranged in a circle on the floor. In the middle of the pillow circle is a ceramic base topped with a decorative art piece.

As the three students involved in the conflict got comfortable in the circle, Principal Brown started circle time off with a brief explanation of what it means and the outcome he would like to see from the restorative time together. He subsequently introduced two circle leaders, from the 6th and 8th grade, who were there to guide the students through the restorative process. These are also lessons that Principal Brown refined through his training time in RPC.

For the remainder of the session, the two student circle leaders explored the incident in question, the root causes of why each young man reacted how they did, tools and techniques that can be used in future situations that will deescalate emotions and behaviors and how each person would like to the repair the relationships that had been broken.

“I came into the circle because of an argument I had with someone that turned physical,” explained an 8th grade student. “From the circle, I learned what to do better in situations, how to be a better person and how to help other kids who have disagreements.”

For the 6th grade student, “This group is about helping kids that make mistakes to get out of trouble and restore a relationship that was important to them that had been damaged by harm.”

As adults, our emotions and triggers are usually complex and layered that may take a lot of work to address but for these young men, their answers were straightforward, honest, trusting of the restorative process and the desire to return to friendship was real.

Although the circle only took no more than 20 minutes in its entirety, each young man was able to speak for himself, listen to each other and collaboratively create an environment where healing took precedence over anger. At the end of the circle the boys were laughing with each other, truly enjoying the return to friendship.

This is what restorative practices are meant to do. With heavy roots in indigenous culture, restorative practices aim to address harmful behavior in a manner that emphasizes community impact and allows those who have harmed, to have a voice in the healing process.

“RPC is a unique program that addresses the needs of the whole student in Bexar County,” explains Suzette Solorzano, UP Partnership’s K12 and Justice Senior Manager of Coaching and Facilitation, who oversees the Restorative Practices Collaborative. “Our work is one that focuses on building community and fostering a sense of belonging while keeping students in class learning. Through processes like circles, students walk away feeling connected, valued and respected within their school community.”

RPC and the My Brother’s Keeper San Antonio network work is primarily rooted in the equity pillar of Healing which, along with Access and Voice, are the must HAVEs for equity amongst Bexar County’s young people.

Tied to the Future Ready Bexar County Plan, in which more than 90 cross-sector community partners have made actionable commitments toward the equity pillars that prioritize providing young people with the developmental relationships and healing supports they need to reach the plan’s North Star Goal of increasing the percentage of Bexar County High School graduates enrolling in a postsecondary degree or credential program to 70% by 2030.

If your organization is ready to join in on the Future Ready movement or the Restorative Practices Collaborative, click here to find out more information on how you can become a Future Ready partner. You can also follow our progress by signing up for our newsletter and following us on social media.

Meet UP Partnership’s Communications Team

Meet UP Partnership's Communications team

UP Partnership’s Communications team creates messaging and provides strategic marketing and communications guidance to UP Partnership staff and partners. The team coordinates an editorial calendar that shares a cohesive narrative of healing, access and voice in connection to the Future Ready Bexar County Plan using various mediums including written blogs, social media and digital strategies and outreach to traditional media.

The team spearheading the communications team consists of Jeannette Garcia, Director of Communications, Ana Sevilla, Senior Manager of Communications and Carrie Ballard-Bañuelos, Storytelling Communications Manager.

Get to know the Communications Team

Jeannette Garcia is a proud alumna of both Judson High School and the University of Texas at Austin. She is a “recovering reporter” that continues to keep a keen eye out on what the tech, manufacturing and small businesses in San Antonio are doing. A dog mom of two pups, Jeannette enjoys spending time with close friends, her mom and younger brother, as well as being an active civic leader in her community.

As a San Antonio native, Jeannette was drawn to the work of UP Partnership because she wants to help drive positive change for the future of her hometown. Earlier in her career, she fell into economic development and grew an interest in workforce development and believes that it is incredibly important to invest in young people who are the workforce of tomorrow.

Her advice to all is “Don’t bury the lead. Always lead with the news. Also, you have to continuously message the same thing to people in order for it to stick — even if you think it’s overcommunication, it probably isn’t.”

Ana Sevilla is a Texas native, and attended Texas A&M University where she earned her bachelor of arts in English. After getting her start in journalism (specifically copy editing), she transitioned into marketing and communications, with a focus on graphic design. She moved to San Antonio in 2018. Ana is fiercely dedicated towards mutual aid work and building community. She enjoys spending time with her husband and her family, chosen and otherwise, as much as possible, as well as cooking, making art, decorating cakes, reading and watching video essays. Tenchi and Zuko, her two cheddar cats, bring light and laughter to her life.

Ana was drawn to the work of UP Partnership’s focus on helping young people succeed academically through tapping into the community’s existing resources and partner organizations. In particular, the restorative justice work that helps spread necessary harm reduction techniques within San Antonio’s education landscape.

Her advice to all is remember that “Everyone is an artist! Just because you can’t draw, doesn’t mean you can’t paint, sculpt, sing, photograph or otherwise. Creation is inherent to the human experience.”

Carrie Ballard-Bañuelos was born and raised in San Antonio. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with two bachelor degrees and recently received her MBA from the University of the Incarnate Word in May of 2023. Married, she is the proud mom of two boys who keep her busy. In her free time, Carrie enjoys spending quality time with friends, reading and writing, as well as attending comic cons—a favorite family activity.

As a mom to elementary grade students, she was drawn to UP Partnership’s work toward creating equity for all young people in the community and ensuring they all have postsecondary opportunities after high school graduation. Young people are the future leaders and workforce in San Antonio, so it is important to support them through their educational journey.

Her advice to all is “Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zones. Those experiences generally lead to self evolution that can have lifetime impact. Also, always, always advocate for yourself. You know yourself better than anyone.”