RHS 'connection circles' aim for better student communication

Feb 26, 2014 By Alejandra Silva, Staff Writer

Riverton High School has set aside time Wednesday mornings to include 10 minutes of student conversations called "connection circles."

The connection circles are aimed at building relationships related to life experiences and interests among students and/or students and staff.

Principal John Griffith said the initiative is part of the restorative justice program being used by other schools in the United States that targets an incident or potential problem and encourages students to become aware of the effect of their actions, understand and take responsibility, and have the chance to repair damaged relationships.

"This focuses on what harm was done, not just punishment," Griffith said, adding that the school is trying to move away from traditional discipline methods or "punitive punishment."

Sending a student home for five days or assigning a period of detention doesn't allow the student to realize fully why what they did was wrong, Griffith said.

"Chances are they'll be back with the same offense," he said.

Connection circles ease students into restorative conversations, Griffith said.

Start talking

The circles begin with a "talking piece" that can be about anything and comes with an explanation of its significance.

Then, "prompts" are offered to students by the facilitator. There are four or five phrases they must finish by filling in the blanks. Each week the phrases differ and generally follow the same theme. On Feb.19 students were sharing their favorite places to feel at peace, or something they want but are to afraid to ask for.

Griffith said the discussion periods started in January. The initial prompts helped ease students into the circle time and gradually open up to their peers.

"It has gone really, really well," Griffith said. "They see it as a valuable time."

Over time students eventually are given prompts connected to their emotions and goals. The circle ends with responses from the students on how they connected with another student related to how they answered the prompt. Often they realize they had a connection and empathize with one another, Griffith said.

By helping students become friends, share interests, strengthen relations, or simply bringing them to talk to one another, staff members hope to improve behaviors and decrease problems in the school, suspensions, expulsions and repetitive offenses.

"Kids can't learn if they're not in the classroom," Griffith said. "We can't let behavior get in the way of their learning."

Multiple benefits

Several incidents that benefit from restorative justice, Griffith said, include physical altercations between students, bullying, arguments, disrespect to staff and the use of cell phones to create tensions online. Staff members track the students and behavior to see if the offense is repeated.

The initiative is being implemented with the help of 12 trained staff members --three principals, four counselors, three student support center staff members, and two academic coaches.

The two academic coaches also focus on students who most often come from Fremont County School District 38 in Arapahoe who may have trouble building connections in District 25.

Mediations also are done by finding a staff member who has no connection with the incident or students involved to offer an objective environment.

Griffith said RHS hopes to train all staff members in the district.

Honesty and respect

In a recent session, SSC director Christina Smith began the circle with ground rules. She said students should "listen with respect and from the heart, speak openly and honestly, use school-appropriate language, and respect people's privacy."

The group included students from a mixture of grade levels. They answered prompts on who inspires them and detailed a favorite traveling experience.

Daelynn SunRhodes said she enjoyed a trip to Florida, and Smith connected with her by saying she lived in Florida before living in Wyoming.

Brenden Allen said his mother was his inspiration, and several other students agreed and explained why.

Students can choose to pass when it's their turn, but must answer to a prompt the second time around the circle. Group members said it was difficult to open up at first, but they gradually felt more comfortable with each other and the types of prompts.

"There's a variety of things to answer," Jordan Mills said. "You can learn about other people."

Better atmosphere

Smith said students eventually become more willing to listen, and they get a chance to practice their social and public speaking skills. Staff members are trained to be able to deal with students who refuse to participate or have a difficult time answering prompts.

Griffith said the program has not encountered a student who absolutely refused to participate.

RHS is mirroring a restorative justice model followed by William C. Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colo. The model offers a timeline for the district to follow throughout the year.

The program is based on the principles of respect, relationship, responsibility, repair and reintegration.

Griffith said the RHS program expects to see fewer referrals for discipline while meeting education and safety standards for students.

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