CEDAR RAPIDS — The leather chairs and fuzzy seats are always arranged in a circle in the green, windowless room where Judy Goldberg works.
Countless middle school students have brought their problems to her there.
A boy keeps pulling my hair, one girl told Goldberg, but doesn’t know I cry about it once I’m home from school. A rumor has grown so big, another said, that someone thinks I want to fight. How can I help my students understand, a teacher asked, how I feel when they refuse to listen in class?
Goldberg, a lawyer by trade, gathers the affected parties in her circle. They talk, one at a time, about what’s happened among them.
Goldberg facilitates, encouraging everyone to consider the other’s point of view. At the end, they reach a resolution — to think before teasing, to talk to each other instead of listening to gossip, to remember your teacher is a person, too — and sign a contract for good measure.
“The circles,” as teachers and students know them, have become commonplace at McKinley Middle School, where many students go home to neighborhoods with some of the highest crime rates in Cedar Rapids.
The practice is part of a larger effort at the school to emphasize restorative — rather than zero-tolerance — disciplinary methods, Associate Principal Justin Blietz said, and demonstrate to students that they’re wanted at McKinley.
“Students need to feel a sense of community and belonging in order to have a desire to want to resolve conflict,” said Blietz, who also is a co-founder of the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for Iowa.
Building that sense takes time and effort, he said, noting the school has been moving toward relationship-focused restorative practices since he and Principal Jason Martinez started at the school four years ago.
“We’re going to try to dig deeper and find out what’s driving the behavior, not just address the symptoms,” he said. “Upfront, that takes more time, which is a little hard and scary for people — for teachers, and administrators, and anybody who deals with students, who are already stressed and hard on finding time.
“But what we believe is, that time upfront will decrease the amount of behaviors in the future.”
It’s the belief of Goldberg as well, who has facilitated the Youth Peace Project at McKinley for two school years. The project, an outgrowth of the Kids First Law Center, started as a response to a conflict that ended with a 15-year-old gunned down just a mile north of the middle school.
Many McKinley students live in Cedar Rapids’ high-crime neighborhoods
In 2015, the Kids First Law Center primarily provided legal representation to children through their parents’ divorce and custody proceedings.
After a 14-year-old shot and killed Aaron Richardson, Executive Director Jenny Schulz said lawyers with the nonprofit center started looking for something more.
“It was a shooting involving two ninth-graders, in a city park, in a residential neighborhood,” Schulz recalled. “That’s not what we know as Cedar Rapids, and it’s not what we want our city to be.”
In McKinley’s attendance zone — which includes Wellington Heights, where the Cedar Rapids Police Community Action Team has focused its efforts — a Gazette analysis of police records from November 2018 to November 2019 show dozens of assault arrests, with a handful of them involving use or display of a deadly weapon.
* Scroll to the bottom of this article for a searchable and scanable database of crime incidents in Cedar Rapids between Nov. 1, 2018 and Oct. 31, 2019. Selected crime data include assaults, burglaries, robberies, arson, murder and attempted murder.
Among youth in the area, Schulz said, “If we can intervene early enough in disputes and prevent them from growing to the point that they become violent, that’s what we want to do.”
Several similar arrests have been made in neighborhoods zoned for other centrally located Cedar Rapids Community School District middle schools, including Franklin, Wilson and Roosevelt. But the Youth Peace Project, after operating for a year at Wilson, rooted itself at McKinley because of it and the school’s shared disciplinary philosophy.
Since 2015, the average number of office referrals has fallen from 18 per day to fewer than six, according to data Associate Principal Blietz publishes publicly online. Suspension rates this school year, as well, are down — administrators have suspended 42 students, compared to 59 by December of last school year.
Major behavior referrals, which the district said require an administrator’s involvement, have also dropped. In the 2015-2016 school year, there were 1,832. Last school year there were 369.
But the true mark of a school built around restorative justice and relationships, Blietz said, are perceptions of safety among students, staff and families.
“I can put pressure on teachers not to write up referrals, but that doesn’t create a healthy community,” he said. “And that doesn’t make people feel safe. That creates a pretty unhealthy culture.”
The school issues annual surveys, and results this semester show most teachers agreed McKinley is a “safe and predictable environment.” Students, too, reported they feel safer in the hallways and classrooms than they did two years ago.
“So much has changed,” said Engagement Specialist Willie Guy, who works with the school’s sixth-graders. “For parents, it’s not the type of school it was when you went here. It’s a different school — even from when your last kid was here.”
‘Maybe there’s something going on at home’: students and teachers strive to connect
In a language arts classroom Monday, 12-year-old E.J. Miller fiddled with a plush Star Wars toy. Around him, in a wide circle of chairs pulled back from desks, were about a dozen other seventh-graders.
There wasn’t a problem among the students to sort out. Instead, the students in McKinley’s seventh-grade leadership team regularly use the circle as a way to orderly meet and build friendships with each other.
Speak the truth and honor the talking piece, E.J. reminded the group — reciting the ground rules used at all the school’s circles — and handed the small BB-8 figure to the girl next to him.
It made its way around the circle several times, as students talked about what colors best described their moods that day and about why they each decided to participate in a holiday charity drive.
The conversations that unfold in these relaxed circles — when no one has an immediate conflict to resolve — set the tone for those tougher discussions.
After a fight broke out among students during a lesson last year, everyone in Ava Lichtenstein’s math class gathered for a circle, the 13-year-old said.
After any circle, she said, she has a better understanding of her classmates.
“I know what their home life is, what they're going through that day, or what they've been going through their entire life,” Ava said. “It just helps me to know what I can do to help them. If I can see they’re being down … I can start conversations and make them feel included in something, especially the kids who get left out of things.”
On Monday, Goldberg, Blietz and language arts teacher Ferida Nuhanovic sat in the circle with Ava and other students — answering the same prompts as them and dancing when called on during the conversation’s “closing ceremony.”
“It brings you down to earth,” Nuhanovic said of the circles, which treat all parties as equal. “It helps me see their perspectives and reminds me of where they’re coming from in the moment. … It’s all about listening.”
Students in the circle in her classroom have been facilitating their own circles at elementary schools that feed into McKinley — during which they try to address any fears about transitioning to middle school, and give young students a familiar face to look for in a new school.
“There are a lot of people in this school who are new to this school, and they just don’t get enough love from other students or teachers,” E.J. said.
“You don’t know what’s been going on — maybe there’s something going on at home, their parents are probably fighting a lot, they’re probably getting abused. Some of the kids here actually have that happen.”
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