A plan for peacebuilding in Alachua County schools

 Ben Howort, Director of Programs and Curriculum Development at the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding (RPCP) in Gainesville, challenged the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) to look differently at the handling of a tense situation that could happen in any classroom.

At a recent SBAC meeting he described a scene where a student didn’t like a grade and so the student raised his voice, threw his assignment on the floor and disrupted class. Most teachers would react by sending the student out and then a meeting with parents and the principal would follow with detention or worse as the outcome, Howort said.

But what if a meeting with that student went like this, he said. The principal says, ‘I am proud of you,’ Howort continued. Proud of the student for being so passionate about his grades that he had such a powerful reaction. And instead of expelling the student, a discussion about better ways to handle frustration and a strategy to get to the reason why the grade was low follows.

This is Restorative Justice, says RPCP Founder Jeffrey Weisberg. “It’s a set of practices and values and approaches to building rapport and relationships and addressing disruptive behavior that is humanizing and cooperatively based.”

Since 2012 the RPCP has been training students and educators how to handle conflict and stress using the practice.

In Alachua County, University of Florida’s P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School , Newberry High School (NHS) and Kanapaha Middle School have taken the training.

Weisberg proposed to the SBAC that an entire school in the district be chosen to dedicate all students, staff and faculty to the training and become a model.

“Right now we have that with P.K. Yonge with all of their faculty and staff being trained in restorative practices and a comprehensive modeling and mentoring process,” Weisberg said.

“They are going school wide. They get to see how to incorporate some of the language and practices into their day-to-day school setting and in more serious cases that might have a more formal circle.”

With them (P.K. Yonge), since they mentor schools around the world, we could see schools they are partnering with embed the training into their cultural settings.”

NHS Math teachers David McKinney and Kyra Purvis took part in the training and say they see the benefits.

“I got a sense that students are as frustrated as the teachers are about the same things,” McKinney said about learning that teachers and students have more in common then he thought. “They look at it from a different perspective but it’s the same topics. It’s too fast, it’s too much work, and we look at it as the State has given us so many things to get through in a school year, so we just rush so they can at least see the material.”

The training, which involved role play and dialogues, also taught students that teachers are people too,” Mckinney said.

“I didn’t learn that lesson that teachers are people until doctoral school. It’s great that students are getting to know that… yes, teachers are authoritative figures, but they are people too.”

Purvis described an activity where students and teachers came up with words A through Z to describe each other. 

“They came up with words describing what they think about teachers and teachers came up with words about what they think about students,” She said. “We were looking at each other at the same level, as people. The issues that we face and they face are the same,” she realized. 

“Well if we are coming from the same places,” Purvis concluded, “we can build a relationship and figure this out before we get to disciplinary situations.” 

Weisberg said he has been contacted by Donna Kidwell, executive director of Exceptional Student Education /Student Support Services for Alachua County Public Schools and has been asked for a follow-up report on strategies to present to the SBAC.

His ultimate goal for Alachua County Schools is for restorative practices to be a primary practice or method of intervening and prevention in building a stronger rapport between teachers and students to build relationships based on dignity, respect, patience and tolerance. 

“This develops a skill set for the educators and students that really changes the outcomes for everybody involved so that it’s a much more constructive and cooperative environment,” Weisberg said.

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