Program encourages nonviolent problem-solving

ROCHESTER — Leland Scott and Tabari Brooks sat across from each other at a table at Joseph C. Wilson Magnet High School as they tried to work things out after one boy "hit" the other for teasing him and spreading rumors.

Leland and Tabari were playing the roles of two teenagers at odds during a peer-mediation exercise Nov. 19 to help the students learn the basics of restorative practices. Those practices include setting the ground rules for the mediators and the people in a dispute; discovering the root of the conflict; finding common ground; and coming to an agreement, explained Jeanne Carlivati from Partners in Restorative Initiatives (PIRI), who led the training for the group of 10 students who are part of the school’s peer ambassador program.

Deja Scott and Shakeya Cook played the mediators.

"We are here to solve your issue without any violence or interruption," explained Deja, 15.

Before the exercise, students also took part in a peace circle where they talked about what they had done over the weekend, how they were feeling and anything they wanted "to check in at the door." That allowed the students to talk about any issues or situations that could cause distractions in their minds as well as build trust among the group members, explained Carlivati.

Carlivati is the main trainer for schools for PIRI, a group that has been leading the way toward restorative practices — such as peace circles and community conferencing — for a decade. The group was founded by Wilbur Bontrager after he received a master’s degree in restorative justice from Eastern Mennonite University, explained Kathy Sweetland, PIRI’s board president. Incorporated in 2002, the Finger Lakes Restorative Justice Center became PIRI in 2008.

The organization also was part of a committee that developed the "Rochester Drug Free Streets" initiative, which recently received a nearly $400,000 from a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant and matching funds and will use a restorative model called community conferencing. (See related story here.) That model also is used to help the parties involved in court cases, particularly the victims, said Sweetland.

The educational component, community circles and re-entry transition circles for women coming out of jail are part of PIRI’s three-prong approach to restorative practices, she noted.

The re-entry circles are a relatively new facet to help women who are close to being released from incarceration, Sweetland explained on Nov. 13 during a training session for volunteers. Women who are accepted into the program are called core members and they create a list of the people affected by their incarceration, she said. PIRI facilitators then contact those people to see if they want to be part of the circle.

"We find out who is critical, who needs to be there," Sweetland said. "One thing we’ve learned in restorative practices is it’s very important … to put the time and effort into the planning stage, the pre-part of it. People need to know what the process is all about and what they contribute. That’s what makes for a much more successful circle."

Another important part of the process is that the core members hear from the people they love about the harm they caused, she said. The circle also helps determine what support an individual needs so she does not repeat the mistakes that landed her in jail, Sweetland noted.

That kind of planning improves her chances at a successful transition back to the community and her family, she said.

"People in a circle are getting the opportunity to say, ‘Because you landed in jail and robbed or got into drugs, this is the hardship you have caused me,’ " Sweetland said. "Then, we try to set people up with a mentor or a counselor."

The PIRI transition circles were included in a grant proposal by Catholic Family Center to develop a restorative process as part of a re-entry program, said Isobel Davies, a coordinator for Step by Step program, now a program of Volunteers of America.

Step by Step offers an eight-week series of workshops to help women as they near their release dates, Davies explained. The program also is part of CFC’s work with the Monroe County Re-entry Task Force, according to www.cfcrochester.org.

When PIRI circles were approved as part of the grant, they were a natural fit for Step by Step, Davies added. So now, women who go through the workshops also qualify for a transition circle, she noted.

"There’s so much commonality between the (transition circles) process and Step by Step: the twin pillars of strength-based support and accountability," Davies remarked.

Davies has served as the principal facilitator for the transition circles that have taken place over the past year at Monroe County Correctional Facility. More volunteers are always welcome, especially those who speak Spanish, she added.

Whether the restorative process takes place at a jail, school or courthouse, the fundamental questions for circles and peer-mediation groups are the same, Carlivati said: "What happened? How have you been affected? Who have you affected? What do you need to do to make things right and what you need from the other person to make things right?"

For educators, she seeks to help them realize that punishing kids only pushes them away, Carlivati added.

"Most kids breaking school rules are not the kids who like school," she observed.

Offering peace circles on a consistent basis or peer mediation as needed provides a much more constructive solution, and schools in the city and suburbs from Brockport to Honeoye-Falls Lima and Avon are trying to become restorative schools, Carlivati said.

Tanishia Johnson, a Wilson school counselor and adviser for the peer ambassador program, said that morale at the school needed the kind of boost that PIRI circles and peer mediation offer. Students and staff were involved in several altercations last year, several of the peer ambassadors said. Since a fight broke out in the cafeteria in October, the atmosphere at school has improved, showing that PIRI’s principles are working, Johnson said.

The goal is to restore relationships within the students, the staff and the students and staff, she added.

Sophomore Tyonnah Fortuna said that she didn’t know much about restorative practices until her friend, Deja, volunteered her to participate in a three-day training in the summer. Both girls are continuing as peer ambassadors during the school year. Fortuna said that she believes the restorative practices can help students and the community.

"It could lower the violence rate maybe, hopefully," she said. "It can help everybody in general, not just a specific group of people."


EDITOR’S NOTE: To learn more about restorative practices or volunteer, visit www.pirirochester.org.

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