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.

Restorative Practice Collaborative plans next steps for Peace Room implementation in the 2021-2022 school year

Restorative Practice Collaborative plans next steps for Peace Room implementation in the 2021-2022 school year

The members of the Restorative Practices Collaborative (RPC) recently participated in an UMOJA planning session, collaborated on next steps, and reflected on the impact of COVID-19 in their schools—ultimately planning the best next steps to implement restorative practices into their schools for the 2021-2022 school year. The collaborative is an extension of the My Brother’s Keeper San Antonio (MBKSA) network and is facilitated by UP Partnership’s Community Learning department.

UMOJA, a longtime training partner, led the discussions for high school and elementary school campus leaders to plan for the implementation of restorative practices in the upcoming academic year.

Why is this important?
RPC and its 160 partners, including three Bexar County school districts (San Antonio ISD, Judson ISD and Harlandale ISD), Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center, Martinez Street Women’s Center, American Indians in Texas, and Intercultural Development Research Association are focused on integrating restorative practices into their institutions and throughout the community, changing the narrative that punitive practices should take the place of healing and restoration.

This community-wide commitment to restorative justice is part of UP Partnership’s goal of moving from “punishment to healing,” one of the core equity pillars of the Citywide Planning for a Future Ready Bexar County process.

Throughout the year, UP Partnership will be featuring various elements of restorative practices, what they are, and the changes they can make.

What are peace circles?

Peace Circles are just one method used in the implementation of restorative practices, but have proven to be powerful. To understand how peace circles lead to restorative justice, we need to understand what they are. According to UMOJA, a training, facilitation, and implementation partner, the purpose of a peace circle is to “bring together students who have had conflict in order to discuss what happened, identify feelings and needs moving forward, share how conflict has impacted individuals [and the] community, and create steps to repair harm.”

  • Peace circles typically have these elements:
    • A talking piece, which allows for deeper communication and expression
    • Elements of modern peacemaking and consensus building processes to heal
    • And are based on traditions of indigenous people in North America
  • Peace circles involve four stages of student engagement:
    • Acceptance
    • Preparation
    • Gathering
    • Follow-up

What’s next
In addition to work around postsecondary access and youth voice, UP Partnership is facilitating conversations with restorative justice partners across Bexar County. Within the next couple of months, school districts and community organizations will also begin creating space at their institutions called Peace Rooms for the 2021-2022 school year. To learn more about restorative justice practices, please also reference the Alternative Discipline Guide, developed by the MBKSA network.

– By Paulina Sosa