Restorative Practices, Part 1

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This is the first episode of two about restorative practices at Genesee Intermediate School District in Michigan. Guests in this episode describe the motivations behind applying for project grant funding, how the project got started, and the restorative practices they implemented as part of their grant.

Guests: James Yake, Chris Melde, Brooke Albert, Karen Shall, Sarah Mulkey


  1. Restorative Virtual Circles (video)

Comprehensive School Safety Planning Series Description

In this series, guests describe the importance of having a Comprehensive School Safety Plan, explain different perspectives on school safety, and highlight the connections between school safety strategies.

Other episodes in this series:

Episode 5 Transcript

James Yake: Listening is one of the most important things that we can do right now. I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re so invested in the circles, is that does give the adults and other kids an opportunity to listen, and for many of our kids coming back, they haven’t been heard, there’s stress that’s happening in the home, there’s just people that are just trying to survive every single day. And so giving that space for our kids to be heard, I think, is just something that is gonna be really important to bring us back to some level of normalcy in this world.

Brent Miller: Hello and welcome to Progress Report, a podcast produced by the National Center for School Safety, the STOP School Violence Program National Training and Technical Assistance Center, funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The center is a project of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Thank you for tuning in to this series on comprehensive school safety planning. We hope listening helps you recognize the importance of planning, understand the different perspectives on school safety, and discover the connections in how various disciplines approach school safety. In 2015, the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice, and the Genesee Intermediate School District, received funding from the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative through the US Department of Justice.

This funding was used to develop and evaluate a comprehensive school safety program, part of which introduced restorative practices in schools. In this episode, you’ll hear about that project from staff members working at the Genesee Intermediate School District, or GISD, which is located in Genesee County, Michigan. They’ll describe the motivations behind applying for grant funding, how the project got started, and they’ll describe the restorative practices they implemented as part of their grant. These include restorative circles, conferences, and re-entry circles. Before we get to my conversation with the GISD team, you’ll hear from Chris Melde, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University, who will give an overview of restorative practices.

Chris Melde: The role of restorative practices in schools has really come to the forefront. There’s a lot of focus on reducing the number of exclusionary disciplinary practices that schools use, and what I mean by that is things like suspension and expulsion. And oftentimes, we look to restorative practices to help solve that issue. From a prevention standpoint, one of the key aspects of restorative practices are what we refer to as circles, and circles are a classroom-based, oftentimes a classroom-based activity that is meant to open up communication, both between students and teachers or students and staff, but also among students. It’s a time to address both positives within a school, but also the concerns that students and teachers may have. So it might be once a week, it might be once a day, but it’s a routine part of a classroom that can be incorporated into and become a routine part of the classroom environment to have a shared dialogue and some rules about a dialogue that people can anticipate. And what is hoped for through the use of these circles, is that when there are concerns within a classroom, when students have a concern, that they feel good and free to share those concerns, but also to highlight the positives. And so oftentimes these are referred to as shout-outs, where teachers can give students a shout-out about something that they liked, or that something somebody did, and students can do the same thing, and recognize people for good behavior, but also recognize issues that could lead to more serious issues later on, and try to nip them in the bud really early. And so creating really that school climate of open dialogue, is a really important and critical feature of restorative practices, and that’s really on the prevention end.

Another facet of restorative practice is on the intervention side, and so when I talk about intervention, that’s something that it’s in response to an event that already occurred, and this is oftentimes where the role of restorative practices conferences come in, and that’s where the affected parties as well as people who might be supervising in those situations, come together and they talk about first what happened. They try to come to some level of agreement about the events that led up to whether that’s a conflict, whether that’s a fight, whether that is property damage, the typical things that might happen within a school. And they sit down and they talk about not only what happened, but what are the expectations moving forward.

So it doesn’t mean that using restorative practices there are no punishments or anything like that, but it’s a different way of dealing with those punishments that goes more into remediation and setting expectations for behavior moving forward, and really to the, as much as you can, getting away from simply getting rid of the problem, right? If there’s a problem and somebody is an offender and one person is a victim, or you consider both to be an offender and you just suspend both of them for three days and hope the problem goes away, this is really focused on working through that problem.

And post-incident, there’s also, especially in particular situations where students may be excluded from the classroom or from school for a period of time, there’s also this notion of a re-entry circle, where as a student comes back into a classroom, maybe after a long delay or where they haven’t been in the classroom for a while, they can really talk about what has happened in the classroom in the meantime, what the expectations people might have for behavior moving forward, but also it’s very much a welcoming, a re-welcoming scenario where people can welcome that person back and get them back into the school environment, in that classroom environment, in a way that would hopefully then lessen the probability of a re-occurrence of whatever event that led to their dismissal.

BM: Can you speak a little bit about the equity component of restorative practices?

CM: A major rationale for the incorporation of restorative practices in schools is to really, to lessen the harms done through traditional forms of punishment. Research would suggest that excluding somebody from school oftentimes may have long-term consequences that are not the intent of the punishment: The punishment is intended to make sure that the behaviors don’t happen again. But we also don’t wanna have all these collateral consequences, and so exclusionary practices in particular have been criticized for their role in creating these long-term harms when we exclude students from school. Problematic behavior can be exacerbated through punishments that further the marginalized students from their classmates, from their teachers and staff, who are often the same people who might help reduce the problematic behavior through improved social bonds.

So really, exclusionary practices also have a chance to create problems in the home with parents and caretakers who have difficulty supervising the student during the normal work hours. So if you exclude a student from school, that might mean that a parent then has to take off of work, and it’s all these different consequences that cascade from that decision to exclude a student from school. To the extent that law enforcement’s involved in the disciplinary process, students also face the potential for legal sanctions and a formal record for their misbehavior, and research suggests that this process could lead students to engage in further misbehavior, being labeled a troublemaker by influential school personnel, and ultimately the student potentially dropping out of school due to these exclusionary practices.

So in sum, there’s evidence that suggests that these punitive and exclusionary practices can have these cascading effects on student misbehavior and ultimately school failure. Unfortunately, research also suggests that harsh punishment and exclusionary practices disproportionately impact students of color. Research that documents these cascading effects, especially for minority students, has termed this the school-to-prison pipeline. So shifting away from these exclusionary practices, just focus on punitive discipline, really has a real possibility of reducing issues of racial inequity and punishment, and the racial inequities in these long-term negative consequences that are associated with these practices.

BM: Next is my conversation with James Yake, Director of Health Safety and Nutrition at the Genesee Intermediate School District. He shared how his district’s comprehensive school safety initiative grant got started. So how did the NIJ grant project at GISD come about?

JY: Yeah, so it was such an interesting, interesting process, because we started in 2014. And NIJ had just started to release these grants, these school safety grants, and they were comprehensive school safety grants, I think that was actually what they ended up calling them. They were new but they were really exciting because they were focused on trying to learn what works to make school safe. So it really gave you an opportunity to think just very comprehensively about school safety. We had to call two, three, four meetings and just kind of crafted some things of looking at what our needs were in the community, and what we could possibly do under this grant.

Now, we wrote a proposal in 2014 that wasn’t funded. But we did get some feedback from NIJ, and we incorporated that feedback into a second attempt, I believe in 2015, but during that development phase, we still had a lot of partners at the table, so we had our school districts and law enforcement. We recognized that, up until that point, at least from what our experience was and we had research, is that school safety was kind of focused in two buckets. So the research was either focused on the social and emotional mental health as a factor, or was focused on these hardened exterior, violent assailant-deterrent kinds of features. And we were… I think our proposal was unique because we really wanted to bring both of those features together, and really think about school safety in a much more comprehensive way.

And I think some previous grantees had focused on PBIS and mental health and integrating mental health into schools. We looked at all of those features, and we designed a plan that I think we hoped to at least try to address all of those. So we had school resource officers, and we put in those climate specialists, which also supported the implementation of restorative justice, but also mental health, and mental health referrals. And then we also trained all of our district staff in basic mental health training. So that was a fun process to be involved in just thinking about that, but I think the thing that even set our proposal apart from others, and even not just proposals but other implementation plans, is that we focus developmentally on elementary. Where you’ve seen mental health and you’ve seen school resource officers, it’s almost entirely focused at the secondary level.

And we really saw from our community, just a community that had experienced a lot of trauma and high poverty, our needs from our younger students were emerging too, so we really needed to support the needs of our younger students. So we thought about it also as a prevention, like, “What kind of supports can we wrap around these kids now, so that when they do get to middle school and high school that maybe they’re more prepared to deal with some of the stresses in their life, and in their schools, or in their greater community?” I think right now, the pandemic has certainly highlighted the awareness of mental health, everybody has an understanding of the challenges that our youth are facing right now.

For us, we think that circles, restorative circles, can be an important part of bringing schools and bringing kids back to school and returning to normalcy, we’re focusing a lot on that this Summer and through the Fall. And for a few reasons, one, kids have been away, so they’ve been away from school, they’ve been away from each other, so they have to re-learn how to engage with each other, interact with each other. And it’s almost kind of like a re-entry circle in a sense. At times we would do re-entry circles for kids that have been out of school for some time. You’ll do a re-entry circle with them and bring them back into that community. So we’re almost in a sense kind of creating environments where you’re building re-entry circles for all these kids that have been out. But at the same time, the one thing that we think the circles do is they allow teachers and they allow school staff to take the temperature of kids every single day, right?

And not their literal temperature, but their emotional temperature. [chuckle] In a Covid world, temperature does mean something. But when you’re doing that circle and every student’s sharing, you know, do I need to follow up with that student later, how are they doing socially, emotionally, right now.

BM: Next is Brooke Albert, a climate specialist at the GISD. She describes the kinds of restorative circles she used, and the positive impact they’ve had on her school community.

Brooke Albert: My name is Brooke Albert, and I have served as a school climate and restorative practices specialist for, this is the third year of the grant project, I was brought in three years ago. Just a little bit about me, I am married, I have three kids, I love my family, we love spending time together, and just as a person, have really kind of a heart for peace and just positive relationships and healthy communication. And so I was working as a home visitor with our intermediate school district when I first became aware of an opening with this project. And everything about it just resonated so strongly with just who I am as a person, and the goals that I have for my life and my relationships. And so I knew right away that I wanted to apply and become involved. And it has truly been, if not the highlight, one of the biggest highlights of my professional life for sure. It’s been an honor and a privilege to be part of this work.

BM: I’m curious if you could describe restorative circles as you understand them.

BA: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I cannot say enough good things about restorative circles and the ways that they can be used, not just in a school community, but in the community at large. But since we’re specifically talking about the school context, one of the things I think it’s important to just think about is how a circle in itself is just a different way of doing things. A lot of the ways that we typically do things in a traditional classroom setting might be with rows, or students sitting where not everybody can be seen. But when you’re doing something in the circle, everybody can see each other, there’s no barriers, there’s equal position and shared power, everybody’s either sitting, everybody’s standing. And I think that those dynamics are really important when we talk about the kind of atmosphere that we’re creating for the circle, but also for the classroom community in general.

And there’s no distinct beginning or end, so a circle just helps us understand that we’re part of a bigger picture, we’re a part of a classroom community in particular, and part of our school community in the bigger picture. And so in our project, we use circles in a couple of different ways. We use them proactively to build community, and there’s so many different ways that can do that – you can do it with content, you can do it with ice breakers, “would you rather” questions, celebrating positive, so many different things. I would take too much time to go into all of that. They’re very flexible, which is, I think, something that our project staff really appreciated about them, so building community. That for us was really critical to ensuring that in the responsive part of using circles, that there was success.

So we were taking a lot of time, 80% of the time to build community with our restorative circles, and then when something went wrong, the justice piece of this – when there was harm that happened that needed to be addressed, we would use circles in more of a responsive way to address the harm, to work through it, to figure out what needed to happen to make things right. And then also there were times that something would happen, we had an instance in the community in which I worked, where there was a big event, and it affected a student in a classroom, and so we used their responsive circle to just process that, because everybody knew that it had happened, everybody was talking about it, but we really needed to take some structured focused time to talk about, “What were you thinking when you heard that this had happened?” And it was a really powerful time together, so there are multiple uses, but the main focus is on proactive, and then a little bit of responsive, if that’s necessary.

BM: Yeah, I just wanna ask if they’re… I know you sort of mentioned one instance in which you applied the circle to process and work through something that happened in a responsive way. Are there any other examples that you’d like to share?

BA: Yes.

BM: Of any kind of circle application, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a responsive circle.

BA: Yeah, absolutely. So I am just so privileged and thankful, to be able to share that we had a number of successes with circles in our district, and one of the phrases that kind of lifted out of our project staff conversation, was this mic drop phrase of just, “the power of the circle.” We would share our success stories via email, just to encourage each other to keep going, keep plugging away, keep finding opportunities to use it, and we would always end those emails with “the power of the circle”. And so, we had a wonderful experience.

But we had an awesome circle, where a teacher in our project decided to use content, her argumentative essay, part of her content in the form of a circle. So students were able to go around and answer the question, “Should students have homework or not?” So each person was able to share their perspective and their reasoning behind it, and one of the really cool things that came out of that circle was that the teacher learned some of the really significant barriers that were keeping students from being able to complete homework outside of the classroom. And so, in response to that, she of changed up her expectations for what students would have to do outside the classroom, just to honor the fact that some students had to go home and watch their siblings all night long, or some students were being shipped from this person’s house to this person’s house, to have the appropriate care that they needed while their families had other commitments and other responsibilities. So that was a really awesome proactive way that we used circles, and it just brought about significant levels of understanding that might not have happened if we hadn’t done things in the circle, and then we did use them a lot responsively, for issues that would come up between students.

We had an incident, where a student was involved in cyberbullying and had been for quite some time with another student, even though that student had repeatedly requested that that be ended, it didn’t end. And so, we did a circle and the student who had been affected by this, was just able to share her perspective about how her family had been affected, how her life and her friends had been affected, and the student who was responsible for that, was so overwhelmed when he heard from her directly how she had been affected and the harm that has been caused, that in addition to an apology and just a commitment to stop, that was all about the other students asked for, he felt this incredible desire and compulsion, if you will, to go above and beyond that, to make things right, and took some extra action in terms of talking with his community of students that, “Hey, we’re not gonna do this anymore, we’re done targeting this student, it’s not gonna happen anymore.” And so that was another really, really powerful instance of how… It was just understanding that came about from the circle process.

BM: Next is Karen Shall. Another climate specialist at GISD. She talked about how circles can be used to discuss both lighthearted questions and heavier, more personal topics with students. Could you describe just some of the practices that you’ve used and how are they used in the classroom?

Karen Shall: We’ve had a wide gamut of the way they use circles, and I have so enjoyed just watching this evolve. It’s really been fun. This morning, we had a couple of different circles in our fifth-grade classroom. We also have the positivity project going on here, and so it’s all the different characteristics. So every week they’re doing something different, fairness versus equality, kindness, what is love, being generous. So it’s always nice. We try to incorporate a lot of those, so that we’re putting that into practice also. But the students, maybe they will have watched a little video on one of those characteristics and then we’ll have a circle.

This morning, we had fifth grade. Yesterday, several of the students had asked their teacher that they wanted to talk about divorce, if any of the kids have experiences going on right now with that, or maybe it’s a new family being formed and a lot of back and forth. And so, it was a really great circle this morning. Deputy Johnson and I were in there together, and it was really great to hear everybody’s perspective, and everybody had so many different situations they were coming from, but they were also able to hear that other students had similarities. And I think some of those things are just one of the greatest bonds with… That was a deeper circle, but sometimes we just have a really fun circle, and it was interesting, because a teacher said, “Okay, we’ve done some deep circles lately, so tomorrow is fun circles.”

And so, it might be something as simple as, “What’s your favorite candy?” And it’s fun, kids can just go around very quickly, telling that, or their favorite ice cream or… And I think you always notice that they connect with someone with that, “Oh yeah, they like Moose Tracks and I like Moose Tracks,” and just hearing some of those similarities. So it’s always fun, but those deep ones are amazing and I really enjoy them. There was one girl that’s very, very quiet usually, and she shared, and then we asked if anybody had a question for somebody, or just wondered about something and she had extra to share. It was very surprising, and it was just really nice to see it. Those circles have been great.

And then of course, we have our restorative circles, where we have an issue. I think last year, just before the close-down, it was probably one of my favorite things, kids had come in from recess. My door is real close to where they come in, and some boys were standing at the door right away and said, “Mrs. Shall we need to sit down and have a circle, because we had this issue out on the playground,” and it was just so cute, the teacher and I just kinda winked at each other. I was like, “Wow, this is what it’s about.” They know they didn’t have to use their hands, we’re gonna take care of this, we will hear everybody’s issue with it, and those restorative circles, just as everyone gets to share. So many times, they realize that was just a misunderstanding.

BM: Sarah Mulkey is another climate specialist at GISD. She shared an example of a restorative conference and a re-entry circle.

Sarah Mulkey: So I’m Sarah Mulkey. I am a school climate and restorative practices specialist, and I’m currently at two different locations in Genesee County.

BM: Sarah, could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your journey to this career? How did you end up becoming a climate specialist?

SM: Yeah. So mine was a little bit different than what the rest of my co-workers were. I originally went to school and I went to Michigan State, for criminal justice. I wanted to eventually become a detective, so [to] just go through working my way up through the police officer ranks, but once I got there, I realized that it wasn’t really what I wanted to do, I wasn’t as interested in it. But then I managed to find a class on restorative practices, and that one really piqued my interest, because it was set up differently, so it was an inside out class, where 14 students from MSU, went to a facility in Jackson and we had class with 14 inmates. And so it was really awesome to be able to talk about this criminal justice topic of restorative justice, in context of these people’s lives and getting their input and views on what we’re learning about and seeing how it could actually be applied in real life, instead of just talking theories at school.

And so, that’s what really got me interested in restorative practices. Once I decided I was going down that path, I added business as another major, so that became my primary major, just business management, because I wanted to do a program for at-risk youth, whether it was with the courts, whether it was independent, with a different non-profit, I wasn’t sure exactly how I wanted it to work, but I knew I wanted to do restorative practices or restorative justice with youth. And then after I graduated, there was a fantastic opportunity with the GISD, to do restorative practices in schools, with kids, instead of waiting till they’re already in the system. So I thought that was awesome, that it was a proactive approach, instead of waiting and having to try and reteach and using these reactively. So I took the chance, and that’s how I ended up as a climate specialist.

BM: So could you tell me about a restorative conference, and if you have an example that comes to mind, could you share that as well?

SM: So this year, at the beginning of the year, I had a teacher email me and she was very concerned about two students who were getting pretty aggressive with each other in the classroom, they were saying really hurtful things to each other. And so, she would like me or our school counselor to talk to them and I volunteered. And so, I brought them each down individually and had a conversation with them about what happened, because when you’re going to do a conference with the restorative questions, it is good to do a little bit of prep work, even for the low-level things. If it’s a higher-level offense, then it’s more prep work. So I talked to them, each individually,[and] had them get an understanding of what was – what I was expecting from them and what the process would look like. And so, I really just focused on saying, “I want you to share honestly, we’re going to take responsibility for our part in it, and I want you to listen to what the other person has to say, and make sure that we’re all on the same page, and you understand where they’re coming from.”

And so, these two students, they sat down, I was not sure about how it would go because I didn’t have a close relationship with one of the students, he seemed to be one who was kind of distanced, wasn’t interested in the restorative process, didn’t really wanna participate. But I was so shocked, he listened so well during that conversation, and he actually shared more than I expected him to. And so, these two students were able to get on the same page by the end of it. The resolution was that he made an apology, as well as the other student made an apology for what her actions were, and her part in causing the conflict, but he also apologized to all of her friends that had also been affected, which… That went above and beyond what I had expected, because it was just the two of them in the conference, but the one student asked if he would be willing, and he said, “Yeah,” because he could see how his actions had impacted them as well, even though it wasn’t directly at them.

So that’s just one of the many conferences or circles that we had within schools. I know that the other climate specialists will also have many stories about just the successes that we see and how it can be surprising at times. We go in with a little bit of skepticism, but then, just following that process and trusting that process, it ends up working out.

BM: So another kind of circle that I know you have some experience with, is these re-entry circles. And I’m wondering, could you talk a little bit about what that is and how you’ve used them in your context?

SM: So before this year, we did a lot of re-entry circles for when students would come back from suspensions or if they were gone for vacation or gone for a death in the family. That’s what most of my re-entry circles were, were students who were gone for a funeral, or for a family matter and they’re coming back. And so, when we would do those, it was really interesting to see, because each student has different needs, and so we gave them that opportunity to share. Of course, we talked with them beforehand, because some students might not feel comfortable with that, but we gave them the opportunity to share with the class what they might need from their class, and it gave us an opportunity to talk with everyone, about these feelings of loss and feelings that typically might not come up in the school setting, but you have to deal with in the school setting, because they still affect you. And so, we’ve had some really great conversations just on being able to connect in those sad times and getting students to be able to verbalize what they need and want from their classmates, in those circumstances.

But this year, we’ve used re-entry circles in a little bit of a different way, because students are coming back to the physical classroom, instead of being virtual. At the beginning of the school year, as well as introducing what circles were, we started to do a lot of re-entry circles, of going over what our expectations were and what the new guidelines are, of wearing a mask, having the shields on your desk, staying six feet apart, this is why we don’t have passing time. So we’re able to bring up those topics of, this is why it looks different, and this is how it looks different, and how do you feel about that. We get their feedback on, “How are you feeling about wearing a mask all day, every day?” or, “What are you excited about?” or, “What are you still worried about, coming back to school face-to-face?” Because at the beginning of the year, a lot of students were still worried. They were worried that they would end up getting sick or their family would end up getting sick, and so, it gave them a chance to share those feelings.

And then, halfway through the year, we actually opened it up to where some of our full-time virtual students could come back to school. And so, we did a prep circle with the students who were face-to-face already, where we talked about, “Now, this is kind of like the beginning of the school year for these other students, they’re coming to a new group, they don’t know any of you, they’ve missed the first half, they don’t know our first processes, they don’t know our procedures,” it gave the students a chance to put themselves in their shoes and say, “Here’s how I can make them feel welcome when they come back,” or, “Here’s how we can help them get used to the routines that we have now.” And so then, when the students from virtual did come back face-to-face, we were able to have those community-building circles again, where it was, “Welcome back, here [are] some of our processes, here’s what circles are. What are your thoughts on this?” and start to already get them inputting.

It was interesting, because at the beginning of the year, you see a whole group of students who… Circles are new to them, and so that openness to share, isn’t necessarily there, but when you bring back just a handful of kids and the rest of the class is already open and sharing, it makes it that much easier for the new students to feel like they can share and be vulnerable, and it was really cool to see how quickly they just jumped in and accepted the new process of, “This is how we do things, this is how we talk with our classmates, and this is how we solve problems.”

BM: Our guests in this episode described restorative practices, such as restorative circles, conferences, and re-entry circles. In our next episode, you’ll hear more from the climate specialists, about creating buy-in for this type of grant project, coordinating with school resource officers and sustaining school safety programs, after the grant period is over. If you’d like to learn more, that may help in your context, you can check out the following freely available resource, from the National Center for School Safety. The video, Restorative Virtual Circles, which explains how educators can transition restorative circles from the classroom into an online environment.

Thank you for tuning into this episode. For more information about the National Center for School Safety, visit our website, You can also check us out on Twitter and Facebook, this episode of Progress Report was produced by the National Center for School Safety, at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health. Additional resources and information can be found in the show notes. And music is thanks to Makaih Beats.

This project was supported by cooperative agreement Number 2019-YS-BX-K001, awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the US Department of Justice’s office of justice programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking. Points of view or opinion in this document, are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.

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