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Restorative Justice in the Winooski School District

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Written by Kayla Loving and Carly Ngo from the Spectrum Multicultural Youth Program for the Winooski School District Newsletter

The Winooski Restorative Justice for Multicultural Youth Project, launched in 2020, is a collaboration between the Winooski School District, Spectrum Youth and Family Services, UP for Learning, and the City of Winooski with funding from the Vermont Department of Children and Families and an anonymous donor. Tis monthly column will highlight the Restorative Justice work happening across the district among different groups. For more information please visit our website by clicking here.

A fundamental part of professional learning for restorative justice is providing staff members opportunities to experience and become comfortable with restorative justice circles. We’ve been offering voluntary district-wide weekly restorative justice circles for staff. Trough this approach, staff are able to become more familiar with how circles operate before they’re faced with facilitating one for students. Staff are given the option of being a participant or circle keeper. A circle keeper facilitates and poses questions for everyone in the circle to respond to. They’re responsible for maintaining the space and ensuring the mutually agreed upon circle agreements are adhered to. A circle keeper plays multiple roles, not only do they hold the role of facilitator, but they’re also a participant too. Circle keepers meet with the Restorative Justice Coordinator to review the circle script and discuss their experiences.

The WSD Wellness Coordinator Jaycie Puttlitz, described her experience as a circle keeper: “Our circle topics often tackle issues that can be hard for people to discuss. Sometimes the topic is deeply thought-provoking, sometimes it evokes an emotional response. What I have found, is that the structure and respect at the foundation of the circle gives everyone in it an equal voice. Participants can safely voice their thoughts without the fear of a negative response from others. I wanted to lead circles for our staff because I was curious if restorative practices could have a positive impact on staff wellness. These restorative practices have been particularly helpful for staff this year as they bear the stress and anxiety of working in a pandemic. Having a time and space to open up and connect with colleagues has been incredibly important to staff wellbeing. And, I believe that the more we practice these circles as a staff the better we will be able to support our students in becoming circle keepers in our classrooms and community.”

Behavior Interventionist Mohamed Diop said: “Circle keeping has been a great experience holding space for our WSD staff and administrators to come together, listen to each other, share their authentic perspectives and learn from one another in trusted bubbles through prompts, or topics of discussion that are designed to connect us as employees, foster Restorative Justice, or practice approaches to treat and serve our students better in our school district.”

ELL Teacher Jean Plasse said: “I’m really glad my coworkers encouraged me to be a circle keeper. It’s really been a powerful way for me to connect with other people. I enjoy helping and this makes me feel like I’m helping in a powerful way. It’s not just something else that I do; it’s an important part of my Wednesdays. It makes me feel empowered, heard and helpful. I like making space for others and listening to what they have to say. It feels right. I also really appreciate the structure.”

High School Math Teacher Luke Dorfman said: “Participating in the staff circles this year as a circle keeper has been a source of joy for me, especially in the midst of so much turbulence and stress that comes with teaching during a pandemic. Having a consistent time and space to connect with my colleagues — to hear about their experiences and emotions and to share my own — has helped me remain balanced and centered. I have valued the opportunity to facilitate these spaces as well, giving others a chance to find
connection and community too. My skills as a facilitator have strengthened over time, and I have a growing understanding of and appreciation for the indigenous practices at the heart of circles. I look forward to continuing to learn and grow moving forward.”

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