Strategies help students learn to resolve conflict

SPRINGDALE -- When a student's feelings were hurt last week, an administrator gathered the student and her friends in a circle to talk through what happened, Sara Reeves, assistant principal at J.O. Kelly Middle School, said.

The friends apologized and told the student they didn't mean to hurt her feelings, that they were just joking around in class.

The conflict was resolved before festering into what could have been a discipline problem a few days later, Reeves said.

Implementing restorative practices at J.O. Kelly Middle School has provided a structure for teaching students how to get along with one another and how to resolve conflicts, Reeves said.

"It's really about giving kids a voice," Reeves said.

Bentonville High School has adapted similar practices for student discipline over the past few years.

The concepts for schools have evolved from restorative justice, a theory that emphasizes repairing harm caused by criminal behavior, according to the International Institute for Restorative Practices.

Restorative practices focus on building relationships and a sense of community to prevent conflict and wrongdoing, according to the institute, based in Bethlehem, Penn.

J.O. Kelly Middle School administrators introduced the Springdale School District to the methods, said Megan Witonski, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Springdale. All 30 principals and central district administrators received training and books. The next step is for principals to train their staff.

In Springdale, the concepts are a compliment to an advisory program that provides every student with at least one adult whose focus is making sure students have their needs met, whether they need school supplies, tutoring, emotional support or have medical needs.

"This is more of a dedicated effort to say what can we do to help," she said. "It's really a communication tool."

Changing behavior

Students in middle school in Springdale are 11 and 12 years old, Reeves said. Many students haven't learned to speak up when a classmate says something that bothers them.

"They talk bad about that person behind their back," Reeves said. "They shove them. They don't communicate what they're feeling."

Reeves was interested in restorative practices as a solution to changing the behavior of students who kept getting into trouble and were disrupting classes, she said. She found resources from the International Institute for Restorative Practices, which developed a Safer Saner Schools program.

Giving detentions and in-school suspensions weren't solving the problems that led some students to misbehave, Reeves said.

Administrators at J.O. Kelly began to couple punishments for misbehavior with spending time listening and counseling with the students after school, Reeves said.

The staff got to know the children and learned that many of them lacked goals, Reeves said. They were focused on the next hour or the next day. Reeves said she helped them understand they could control their behavior.

"Let's identify problems and put in place strategies for getting what you want," Reeves said. "We are investing that time in them and making lasting changes rather than putting a Band-Aid on the problem."

The practices are used to resolve student conflict, to help students who are coming back to school after a suspension and to build community within the student body, Reeves said.

The school has a 30-minute advisory time each morning, Reeves said. Teachers can decide how to use the strategies, but some will gather students for a check-in on Mondays. Students will sit in a circle and one-by-one rate their day from a one to five, five being the best day of their lives. Other teachers will meet with students at the end of the week to find out how their week went.

If an issue arises in the middle of the week, the teachers can meet with their advisory groups and use methods to generate conversation and help students come up with solutions, Reeves said.

A second chance

Bentonville High School began working with restorative discipline a few years ago. Ben Lewis, dean of students for ninth-graders, formalized the process. The method is used when students have committed an offense that could result in expulsion, he said.

A committee follows guidelines to determine if the student would be a candidate for restorative discipline, Lewis said. Students who have been attending school, who are on track to graduate and who are not repeat offenders tend to be good candidates. Parents are involved in that decision, as well, Lewis said.

The option is not available for students who face expulsion for bringing a gun or weapon to school, he said.

Students who have had minor infractions or who have never been in trouble but have committed a major offense once can be considered, Lewis said.

Students have a checklist to follow that includes avoiding similar misconduct, attending all classes, going to Saturday school, working with a mentor, participating in a school club and completing community service hours, Lewis said.

"We build relationships with these kids," Lewis said. "We see them on a daily basis. We can keep them here under our guidance."

Students often are thankful to get a second chance, Lewis said.

"You really get their parents on board," Lewis said. "They become more focused academically."

Sara Ford, J.O. Kelly principal, said the approach has given her another option for working with students on correcting behavior.

Ford still sets high expectations for students for their behavior and provides consequences when they misbehave.

"When you take the time to try to teach, to try to restore, that hopefully has a much longer lasting benefit," Ford said.

NW News on 08/24/2015