Transforming Troubled Schools

By Robert C. Koehler

What happened?

Can the world shift on such a simple question? Imagine yourself sitting eye-to-eye with a kid in trouble and that’s the first thing you ask. No lecture, no sarcasm, no judgment, no explosion of lost patience and a cry of “Why did you do that?” Just: What happened?

And then you wait for an answer. When it comes, however haltingly, you press gently and firmly on, still without judgment, just the need to know:

What were you thinking at the time?
What have you thought about since?
What do you think you need to do to make things right?

These are the four basic questions of restorative practices, a movement slowly transforming troubled schools and troubled communities around the globe — a movement replacing zero tolerance and other punishment-based and wildly ineffective practices that increase people’s feelings of separation and alienation from one another.

“I found myself running down the hall all the time because of fights,” Rhonda Richetta told me, speaking of her early days as principal of Baltimore’s City Springs School, a K-8 school in a tough inner-city neighborhood. “I would look at kids’ faces. Everyone looked angry, like they didn’t want to be here — adults and children both.”

In poverty-wracked neighborhoods, this is the American school system. “Education” takes place in a context of anger, violence, intimidation and arrest. The kids are struggling not to learn but “just to survive,” as Ted Wachtel, founder and director of the Bethlehem, Pa.-based International Institute for Restorative Practices, put it.

“How as a society can we live with that?”

At City Springs, one of four charter schools run by the Baltimore Curriculum Project, Richetta had no intention of living with the situation she had just walked into. This was in 2007. In her quest to change the environment of her school, she learned about IIRP and took training in restorative practices, an extensive philosophy of community-building based on respect, listening and truth-telling rather than punishment. Unlike traditional methods of keeping order in troubled schools, restorative practices require everyone’s full participation, not merely their obedience. It’s a philosophy of “high limit-setting and high encouragement,” Wachtel said.

And Richetta was positive it would work at City Springs. Five years later, with her vision firmly in place, the effectiveness of restorative practices is obvious. I spent half a day at City Springs recently, as part of my own determination to see how people are creating peace on our planet. I sat in “proactive circles” with first-graders and eighth-graders, listening and participating as the kids checked in and talked about how they were doing that day. One teacher said the proactive circle, held not in response to a problem but simply to get the day started, was like taking a daily vitamin. Kids and adults connect with each other and a context of respect and mutual cooperation is established anew.

What I was part of that morning was the result of five years of painstaking effort, on the part of Richetta and others at the school, to apply restorative practices in every situation: five years of patience, listening and asking “what happened?” This question “jolts the kid,” Richetta noted. Suddenly the boy or girl who has gotten into trouble realizes, “Oh, she wants to hear my side” — and begins talking, and becomes part of the solution, not the problem.

When such a program is in place, it seems like common sense itself. But five years ago, Richetta explained, she faced enormous resistance — not from the kids, who hungered to tell their truth, but from the teachers. Many of them couldn’t believe talking and circle work would be supplanting suspensions. Lots of them left. But she held her ground.

One story she told me illustrates the depth of the change at City Springs. At Perkins Homes, the nearby public housing development where most of the students live, two groups of boys from different courtyards developed an intense, violent rivalry, and daily fighting was the norm. The assistant principal at the time was adamant that the animosity among the boys would overwhelm any circle process and the two groups had to be kept separated. The school put a lot of energy into doing so, but things eventually erupted anyway.

“Finally I said, I don’t care what anybody says, we’re putting them all in a circle,” Richetta said. The idea of a conflict circle is to get enemies to listen to one another, no easy task, and “at first it didn’t go well. We had to keep pulling disruptive kids out.”

But eventually the two sides began talking and “what started to come out of the whole conversation was how ridiculous it was. They were fighting over nothing — it was amazing to me to sit there and hear them. This is so ridiculous. These boys were fighting and wanting to kill each other over nothing!”

And gradually this awareness dawned on all the participants. Finally one of the principle ringleaders stood up and shook a rival’s hand, and others followed suit. “These kids became friends at school,” Richetta said, “but when they went into the neighborhood they had to pretend they were enemies.”

And this is why the peace-building process has no boundaries. “The word about restorative practices should be spread around the world,” Richetta said. “I’m grateful for what it has done to transform this school. What if we could transform this community, this city, the whole nation?”


Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist. His new book, “Courage Grows Strong at the Wound” (Xenos Press) is now available in bookstores. Contact him at or visit his website at

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4 responses to “Transforming Troubled Schools

  1. Bah. Adjusting children to a failed system is not my idea of a good idea. Tear these prisons down! Go back to when children could learn. The educational model is strucured for creating obedient slaves who think regurgitating facts on tests is learning.

    Why is it that the kids from one room school houses .in the 19th century could learn and our kids can’t? Savage inequality is the order of the hour.

  2. What a wonderful, heartening idea! I hope that this can gain traction in other schools and eventually in other areas of society. Peace cannot be achieved through punishment.

  3. Reblogged this on Revolt Against Apathy and commented:
    This is the kind of revolution that we need, a revolutionary approach to conflict resolution. As human beings, we are all interconnected, part of the larger whole we call “society.” No individual’s action can be interpreted in isolation from its societal context. We need to move beyond the primitive idea of punishing the “offender” and realize that in so doing we are only perpetuating the cycle of crime, violence, and immorality that hurts us all.

    In order to do this, we have to be able to let go of the ego that assures us that we ourselves are “good” but others can be wholly “bad.” There is no such thing as a purely good or purely bad person, there are only good or bad actions (if that). When someone commits a crime and we label them as “a criminal,” we strip them of their humanity. This not only tends to lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy for the “criminal” but also hardens our own hearts and strengthens our egotistical belief that “we” are good and “they” are bad.

    The ills of society are a product of society. In order to cure them, both the individual and the larger community must work together, with compassion and respect. For too long, we have tried to quarantine evil, ignore it, deny it, ascribe it to something outside of ourselves. It is time to face it, to see the good and the bad in ALL of us. This includes not only acknowledging our own faults but, perhaps more importantly, acknowledging the GOOD in our perceived “enemies.”

    Peace will never be achieved by fighting “enemies” or punishing “criminals.” Those are relative terms, used to divide us. The only label we can use to describe ourselves in absolute terms, the one label that applies to us all, is “human.” Peace can only be achieved by respecting our common humanity and choosing to unite, rather than divide.

  4. Pingback: A Revolution in Human Relations « Revolt Against Apathy

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