June 24, 2008
Peer Review Lets Students Resolve Behavior Issues; Discipline Reports Have Dwindled at Milwaukee High School
By DANI McCLAIN
When Kevin Blackman joined the peer jury at James Madison Academic Campus this past school year, the 19-year-old senior worried his classmates would call him a snitch.
After all, he and the other dozen students in the inaugural group would rule on disputes involving classmates accused of disrupting class, bullying or truancy -- traditionally the work of an assistant principal.
But being on the jury turned Blackman into a hero, not a snitch, in classmates' eyes, he said.
"We're the role models that the students look up to now," he said, and added that the experience prompted changes in his own behavior. "I can't sit here and give my input on how to better yourself if I'm out there doing the same thing you are."
The peer jury began at James Madison Academic Campus, or J-MAC, at the start of the spring semester. This group, and the "community circles" that take place in classrooms throughout Milwaukee Public Schools, are part of a broader effort to address high suspension rates using the principles of restorative justice. This approach to conflict resolution brings victim and offender together with facilitators to discuss the facts of a dispute and its effects.
Late last year, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm assigned a community prosecutor to work on reducing violence in MPS. Assistant District Attorney David Lerman, long a proponent of restorative justice practices, began working with administrators and staff at J-MAC to help students resolve nonviolent discipline problems.
During mediation, the victim, offender and all jurors sit in a circle and pass around an object, which Lerman calls a talking piece. Using that object as a license to speak, participants take turns answering the same four questions:
- Who do you think got hurt?
- What are your personal feelings about what happened?
- What do you think needs to happen?
- What are you personally willing to do to prevent harm and solve the problem?
By the end, everyone involved should feel the group has reached a reasonable solution, be it an apology to a teacher, community service or detention.
But even more than deciding how a student will make amends, Blackman and his fellow jurors are helping to change the climate at the high school of nearly 1,100 students, Lerman said. After just a semester, the values of compromise, confidentiality and self- revelation are becoming part of the J-MAC's culture, students and staff there said. And that creates a safer learning environment.
School sees results
At the start of the past school year, teachers reported an average of 20 discipline infractions to the office a day, said Assistant Principal Tosha Powell. But toward the end of the school year, that number had decreased significantly.
"I'm probably down to two or three (a day)," Powell said in early June. "In the last two months or so, I'm saying, 'I don't have any referrals. What's going on?' "
Teaching young people to listen, take turns speaking and work collaboratively toward solutions is the key, Lerman said.
"If we're not giving young people the opportunity to have real conversations about real issues, then what do we expect?" he said.
Staff at several Milwaukee public schools said community circles also are effective when rumors are afloat. Teachers tend to know when a potentially violent situation is bubbling just beneath the surface, said Tina Owen, lead teacher at the Alliance School.
She used restorative practices last fall, when four girls at the MPS charter high school were threatening to beat up each other and even have each other killed. Owen organized a circle with the students and their parents. The girls walked into the room clinging to the adults for protection and left hugging each other, she said.
"It came out that everybody had been exaggerating," Owen said of that circle, which used the same questions as the peer jury at J- MAC. "They really don't want the conflict. The circle and the presence of all the people kind of push the truth to come out, and it's very powerful."
Restorative practices give students the chance to accept responsibility for their actions, Owen said.
Helping a classmate cope
At Brown Street Academy, a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school, the staff uses the methods to structure much-needed conversations, said Susan Lex, a social worker there.
This past school year, three fourth-grade girls started out harassing a classmate about her cleanliness and, after Lex intervened, ended up coaching her through a problem with empathy and care.
"When it came out in the circle, the girls were really supportive about helping this girl learn proper hygiene and understand that their bodies were changing," she said. "Kids are getting a chance to tell their story."
Lex, who has been at Brown Street Academy for 14 years, said she's seen behavioral problems skyrocket recently. Just in the past two academic years, the percentage of students suspended jumped from 9.5% to 16.2%.
The school is one of two dozen in MPS targeted by Safe Schools/ Healthy Students, an $8.5 million federal grant that expands anti- violence programming, including restorative practices.
Students and staff at the targeted schools will receive training in restorative practices in August. This week, Pat LaCocque, a Greenfield Elementary social worker credited with introducing many MPS staffers to the philosophy, will coach participants on how to facilitate the circles.
LaCocque said getting adults to cede some of their control to students is often the hardest part, but teachers get on board once they can envision the results.
"In this day and age, we really have to teach kids how to be social and emotional creatures in addition to moving forward academically," she said. "When you have a class that's working as a community, you get so much more done."
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