Talking circles, a Native American method often used in schools to resolve conflict between young people, are spreading beyond the classroom. In suburban Kent, educators are using it to work through adult-level problems at staff and school board meetings.
Much has been written about schools’ use of “restorative justice” as a way to address student misbehavior through deeper communication, rather than suspensions and expulsions.
But the Kent School District is taking that approach to a whole new level.
Last week, Kent Superintendent Calvin Watts sat in a dimmed board room with three elementary school principals, their supervisor and several peace circle leaders from a local consulting group. On the floor between them: a shell holding dried sage, a candle on a plate and a miniature wooden oar that would be passed from one to the next, serving as a “talking stick.”
For the next two hours, in a process designed to increase trust and improve communication, they shared their own education struggles and stories, beginning to know each other better as people, rather than just co-workers.
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Similar circles have taken place at school board and staff meetings across the 28,000-student district. Kent, which has seen rapid demographic changes in the past decade, also has a history of racial and employee-management tensions.
After a particularly fractious school board meeting in 2016, where teachers complained about violence from elementary school students, Watts made his move. He had been determined to shift an often adversarial culture in the district, and at that meeting he found his opportunity.
“That was the moment of truth,” he said. “We can place blame and say ‘how dare these teachers call these students violent — they’re second grade students!’ Or we can meet them where they are.”
What followed soon after was a four-hour talking circle involving principals, teachers and behavior specialists sharing their perspectives and being forced to reflect on others’.
“The four hours passed in what felt like four minutes,” Watts said.
Encouraged, he invited several dozen educators, parents, social service providers and law enforcement officers to a three-day session of talking circles last fall.
Rosa Cabrera, principal at Neely O’Brien Elementary, was among them and described “an amazing, yet intense, three days of pouring out and sharing things that you normally would not be so open about.”
Afterward, Cabrera said, participants left feeling more trust for one another and more willingness to work together.
She was impressed enough to bring the practice back to students in her building, holding weekly circles to understand such topics as respect from her students’ point of view.
“I ended up loving it,” Cabrera said. “I thought it was great tool for healing and hearing students’ side of the story to resolve conflict. It’s been a tremendous benefit to our campus.”
At Meadow Ridge Elementary, Assistant Principal Aric Kooima plans to use talking circles in staff meetings.
“It’s a different approach, and buy-in is always a fear,” he said. “But we want to better communicate as a team, and this, I feel, is a positive tool for that because it allows everything to be on the table. I’m a firm believer that conversations help change behavior, more so than consequences — that’s true with students, and adults.”
Meanwhile, student discipline in Kent — long known as a suspension-heavy district — is beginning to look different. Reports of elementary-school bullying dropped 32 percent between 2014 and 2016. Among middle-schoolers similar referrals were down 28 percent.
“We are further along with the students in talking and healing circles,” Watts said. “The next step is to work toward an adult model, because you can’t underestimate the power of that connection with another person.”