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Students form a peace circle at a restorative justice program at O'Keeffe Middle School.

On a recent Friday morning at Madison's O’Keeffe Middle School, nine students gathered in a circle to reflect on their experience. Some shared their happiest memories during the three years while others described challenges they faced. They also shared what their goals for high school were and where they see themselves in ten years.

“I enjoyed the fun field trips we had, it brought everyone together and made us closer,” one student said.

“In ten years I see myself at the UW-Madison or University of California in Berkeley,” said another.

The activity is called a restorative circle, an aspect of restorative justice programs. Actual restorative justice programs are closed to reporters, so O'Keeffe set up a mock circle to illustrate how they work. Students’ names were withheld to protect privacy.

Restorative justice is a popular practice nationally, if not globally, to resolve conflicts and repair harm caused by criminal behavior or wrongdoing. The practice has been implemented in jails, prisons and schools, including the Madison Metropolitan School District.

Rather than taking punitive action, restorative justice resolves issues by allowing offenders to take responsibility for their actions and reconcile with those affected by the harm done.

In 2012, the district agreed to work with the YWCA Madison, allocating $164,420 to train students and staff to run restorative circles. It has implemented a few components of restorative practices such as circles, youth court, mediation and family group conferences. Youth courts give students at East, West, La Follette and Memorial high schools the chance to appear before a jury of their peers to address incidents, who was affected and steps to repair the harm. Youth courts are an alternative to giving out municipal tickets.

In restorative circles, the goal is to restore harm done by having the offender, victim and larger community come together to discuss the conflict. The process relies on asking “what happened, why did it happen, who got impacted, and how do we resolve this so it doesn’t happen again?” Restorative circles can sometimes help give a sense of healing to the victims since they can participate in the process. Restorative circles are currently used at six middle schools: Sennett, Wright, O’Keeffe, Blackhawk, Toki and Cherokee.

Eugenia Highland, Restorative Justice Manager at the YWCA, works with the six middle schools to implement and facilitate the restorative practices. She said the goals of restorative justice are to build relationships, strengthen trust and engage with each other. The three pillars of restorative justice are accountability, competency development and community safety, she added.

“If there is a conflict we want to examine why it happened and get to the root issue of it,” Highland said. “The circles are mostly youth led; youths are experts in their own lives and relate better to their peers than adults.”

The circles are led by “circle keepers,” students who have been trained by Highland. The training is ten weeks long and students learn about issues surrounding race and racial justice, the school to prison pipeline, communication and leadership skills, the criminal justice system and other societal issues. The goal is for them to be able to lead circles in their schools with their classmates.

“We want our students to be active members of the process. We work to bring back control of the situation and those who have sat in the circles in the past said it was a calming and humanizing experience,” said O’Keeffe principal Tony Dugas.

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Parents, teachers and peers can nominate students to be circle leaders. Schools choose students based on their compassion and drive to make a change in their schools and community, rather than grades and achievements. Highland said after students get chosen to lead circles, there is a club every other week held during lunch to work on facilitation skills and students discuss issues like privilege, intersectionlaity, gender and trans justice in depth.

Being part of a circle is voluntary but if a student is referred by a teacher to be in one, they have the choice to decline.

“Sometimes students refer themselves or their parents may do it. Some have agreed and others have disagreed but overall they have been very welcoming to the process and mentioned it’s good to listen to other people’s feelings,” Highland said. “Restorative justice is not an exclusionary process where the wrongdoer is isolated to think about what they did; instead it’s an inclusionary one where everyone involved can heal through discussion and listening.

Dugas said he hopes over time restorative practices will be used more than punitive measures.

“When kids make a mistake — and I say ‘mistake’ because they are kids that are still growing and learning — can we use circles instead of suspensions and expulsions? What kind of learning can they go through to make sure it doesn’t happen again?” Dugas said. “Ideally if we have enough trained keepers and staff, we can use more restorative circles which will reduce the need of students to leave class and miss important instructional time.”

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