For a Self-Destructive Student, a Restorative Circle Fostered a Sense of...

column | Social-Emotional Learning

For a Self-Destructive Student, a Restorative Circle Fostered a Sense of Belonging

By Farhat Ahmad (Columnist) and Brittney Wilson     Feb 1, 2022

For a Self-Destructive Student, a Restorative Circle Fostered a Sense of Belonging

Ralphie came to us via a disciplinary hearing in the spring of 2019, after he was charged with multiple disciplinary infractions including fighting and drug use. He was 14 years old.

Ralphie’s case resulted in long-term suspension and assignment to Marietta Alternative Program and Services (MAPs), an alternative program within his local high school in Marietta, Ga., that provides increased academic, social-emotional and behavioral support for students who aren’t thriving in traditional settings.

As the duo responsible for putting a plan into place to support Ralphie—Farhat Ahmad as the director of MAPs who manages day-to-day operations of the alternative program, and Brittney Wilson as the director of innovative practices and discipline for the district—we met a few days before Ralphie’s arrival to make a plan.

We had a slew of intervention and support strategies in place, from daily check-ins to one-on-one counseling services and group therapy, but from the day he walked into MAPs, Ralphie was combative with authority. After just a few months with us, he was caught by the superintendent breaking into a district leader’s car in the parking lot. He was expelled from MAPs and sent home to work virtually under the supervision of MAPs staff and his juvenile probation officer. Nine months later, after committing an act of felony assault, he was sent to the youth detention center (YDC), a local residential facility for juvenile offenders under the age of 16.

In January 2021, after losing months of his education, he was placed back in the MAPs program, this time as a condition of his release. The juvenile court judge ordered him to attend the program five days a week from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Ralphie was forced back into a setting where he was already behind and set up for failure—he was 16 years old and in his second year of high school, but still on the roll as a freshman.

Ralphie’s story is not unique for the students at MAPs. Many of our students engaged in self-destructive behavior at a young age, and as a result, transitioned in and out of various settings. At MAPs, we use a therapeutic approach, focused on restorative justice and deep relationship-building. With Ralphie, we knew this would be critical.

Working closely with the courts, we got to know Ralphie quite well and formulated a plan for his success. We checked in with him daily, communicated closely with his mother to strengthen home support, and stayed in weekly contact with his probation officer who was responsible for monitoring his behavior outside of school. A key step in setting up a support system for Ralphie was developing a strong ecosystem that included members of his family, school and the court system. In our experience, while it can be a long game, we knew this kind of support network would improve his behavior, attendance and ultimately, his academic progress.

Once Ralphie settled in, we wanted to foster a sense of belonging. Without strong family ties and lacking positive adult relationships in his life, it was important to convince him that he still had a strong support system—with us. If we could show Ralphie that a group of adults were on his side and that despite his misdeeds, there was forgiveness in the world—we thought he could turn things around.

We facilitate restorative circles regularly at MAPs as an alternative approach to discipline with a focus on healing, rather than consequence. We decided to plan a restorative circle between Ralphie and the district leader whose car he broke into.

Sir Jose Bright—a local lawyer with a focus on community development and a volunteer at MAPs—leads our restorative circles. This works well because our students know him deeply since he runs weekly mindfulness sessions focused on supporting them with de-escalation strategies so they can react more thoughtfully during challenging situations, rather than making rash decisions.

This restorative circle included Ralphie, the district leader whose car he broke into, a school and district leader (that’s us) and two personal advocates for Ralphie—a family friend and an instructional specialist.

The circle wasn’t about confronting Ralphie for his mistakes. The purpose was to show him that he wasn’t alone on his path—that people cared about him and wanted him to heal. Ralphie needed to understand how his actions affected others, and the adults in his life needed to understand what the motivations were behind his actions.

During the circle, he opened up about the source of his pain—that his father was in prison. He shared that growing up was a struggle, that he began using drugs in 8th grade and since then, he has been caught fighting and committing crimes. This brought out strong emotions, which ran deeper when he reflected on how his entire family was affected by his actions. Those of us who know him now, understand that Ralphie lashed out from a place in his heart that was broken.

A restorative circle isn’t a fix-all, but it was a powerful step forward for Ralphie. He owned his actions, reflected on some of the challenges that led him to take his actions and admitted that he was affected immensely by the absence of his father. This gave us hope for Ralphie moving forward.

Ralphie’s progress hasn’t been linear. His anger still comes out quite often, and since the circle, he has had his ups and downs. The difference is that now he can reflect on a shared experience with a few adults who were willing to listen and proved that they cared about helping him grow, so now he is willing to listen to those adults.

At MAPs, we don’t have a hard and fast quantitative measure for social-emotional growth. Instead, we believe that qualitative data and interpersonal reactions are the only true measure, and in Ralphie’s case, growth was evident.

It wasn’t only Ralphie who changed as a result of the circle. Later that week, the district leader found us and said, “I thought about it for days—the other side of the story you never get to hear when you’re the victim of a crime.” He explained that hearing Ralphie’s story profoundly impacted him, helping him see Ralphie as a person, rather than a perpetrator.

Recently, Ralphie was arrested for a new crime. The judge asked us to be present at his hearing and testify on his behalf. During our testimony, we shared about the progress he made through the restorative circle. Ralphie had become much easier to talk to and was more willing to engage in dialogue rather than balling up his fists and shutting down. He was also more diligent in his schoolwork, completing enough credits to put him at the tail end of his junior year by the end of 2021.

In part due to the success of the restorative circle, Ralphie was court ordered to remain on house arrest with therapeutic services; it could have easily gone the other way and he was facing nine to 18 months in the youth detention center.

There is a fine line between what’s just and what’s right. We think about that a lot at MAPs. It is why we talk about healing and rehabilitation rather than punitive consequences. Implementing restorative practices with fidelity is challenging, but even when the circumstances are complex the approach can be powerful. In Ralphie's case we truly believe they were the difference between him healing and moving forward or completely self destructing.

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