by Jay Kent
It’s easy to make a mistake or unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings, but admitting your wrongdoing can be more difficult. With that in mind, restorative circles were introduced at Cleveland High School last year under former Dean of Students Caine Lowery to reduce suspension rates – especially those of students of color – and restore damaged relationships. That’s why the school’s administrative team has brought them back.
Lowery has since taken the position of Assistant Principal at Aki Kurose Middle School. Since his departure, Chevas “Chev” Gary and Jamil Harding have both been appointed to the role of Restorative Circle Coordinator. Last year under Lowery’s leadership, 120 circles were requested from Cleveland students and staff members.
“We’re not replacing him, we’re trying to continue to instill what he helped start,” said Gary.
“I was actually recruited by Mr. Lowery,” said Harding “We were gonna work side-by-side this year until he got the position at Aki … so then Chev and I said, ‘You know what? Let’s do it.’”
One of the goals of each restorative circle is repairing harm done in relationships within a space that is accepting and confidential, as opposed to punishing those who may have caused harm or broken the rules. Cleveland High’s School of Life Sciences Assistant Principal Catherine Brown said people shouldn’t be afraid of facing conflict head on.
“I think that one of the most harmful things about how we deal with conflict … is the belief that it’s abnormal … That conflict is something that shouldn’t happen and when it happens we feel shame and failure,” said Brown. “Dealing with conflict, on the other hand, is a skill that needs to be learned like any other.”
Cleveland joins fellow South End school Rainier Beach High in having implemented restorative justice systems as a way to curb suspensions, especially those involving black males.
In the 2015-16 school year, an African American student at Cleveland was 12 times more likely to be suspended than an Asian American student. Restorative circles were implemented during the 2016-17 school year, and after one semester of the circles being in effect, the suspension rate of African American students dropped to four times that of Asian American students.
“There’s still work to do, but we were pleased with the direction that it was going,” said Brown. “We’re just hopeful that this year there should be no predicting by race who’s going to be suspended. It should be fair.”
Phuong Nguyen, a math teacher at Cleveland, has been called to three circles by students.
“Initially, you think ‘Oh, I gotta go talk to a student who had a difficult situation,’ because in my perspective I think I’m fair, I think I’ve done the right thing,” said Nguyen.
“From all three of my experiences, I thought it improved the relationship,” he said. “The thing is, sometimes, I think kids might not think that you care but when you have an opportunity to be in that circle, you have an opportunity to really say, ‘Hey I really care about you, your grades … I’m here for you.’”
While Nguyen was initially skeptical going into a circle, he now appreciates their use.
“Try it. Don’t think … ‘Oh this is so silly.’ It feels like you’re going into counseling; maybe there’s a negative connotation for that. But I would definitely recommend it.”
Gary and Harding are looking to expand restorative circles this year by inviting 10 staff members and 10 students to help facilitate the circles. The details of how these people will be selected is still being decided.
“For change to happen in an institution and in a community, it has to happen in more than just one person, in more than just two people, and so I think this is just a catalyst for making it clear that this is a process that we want to exist in our school,” said Gary.
Cleveland’s administrative team has high hopes for the future of restorative circles, and are pushing those who may benefit from them to use it as a resource.
“My really specific outcome that I want is discipline to be both minimal and proportional,” said Brown. “Be willing to try. Be willing to be open to it. My faith is so strongly in our circle keepers. It was in Mr. Lowery as well, and as hard as it was to imagine replacing him, these two guys are so gifted and trustworthy.”
Circles can be held between any members of the Cleveland community, and the circle’s details won’t be shared with anybody outside of the circle.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Cleveland High Journal
Featured image: Chevas Gary, left, and Jamil Harding are the new Restorative Circle coordinators. The duo oversees the process of restoring damaged relationships and teaching students how to resolve conflicts in a more positive way. (Photo by Jay Kent)