Students are empowered when we give them a voice and allow them to be experts in their own lives. It is rare to find students in leadership roles at the middle level that truly allow students to be stakeholders in the programs that govern their school experience. Students hold leadership roles in student council, musical groups, service learning and athletics, but have not traditionally had a voice in disciplinary matters. I wanted to change that at the middle school where I currently serve as a counselor. But I knew for any program to be successful, it was essential to allow students to guide each step of the process.
When I started the Peacekeeper program 8 years ago, our counseling department was overloaded with low level peer incidents. I was currently in the master’s program at the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) and believed students could learn the skills I was learning. I took a risk. I approached the administration with a proposal to teach 7th graders about restorative practices. At the time, I had no real vision of what the program would look like.
I designed a class where student participated in a variety of activities, including:
- team building activities,
- exploring conflict,
- writing stories using restorative questions,
- brainstorming possible solutions, and
- acting out scenarios with role playing.
The room is often filled with lots of laughter and the students are completely engaged.
It wasn’t long before I realized students can lead tough conversations and be creative with how to repair harm when it occurs. They were hungry for much more. They wanted to work with real conflicts. I had so many questions. What about confidentiality? Will I get administrative support? Can I take the time away from my counseling responsibilities to support the program? How do I know the students are ready? After a few conversations with building administrators, I had a plan.
I welcome any student into the class, no matter what their learning abilities and behaviors. Students learn valuable skills in the program and there is a place for everyone. Anyone interested in participating completes an application. I look for integrity, commitment, and a willingness to help others.
The students who finish the class are offered the opportunity to work as Peacekeepers the following year as 8th graders. They show competency using the facilitator script and I developed rubrics for assessing their skills. Confidentiality is discussed and contracts are signed. We meet weekly as a group to review skills and share about our lives. Building community is my number one priority. The large group is broken into several small working teams. They name themselves and take turns being facilitators, greeters, and notetakers for each restorative conference.
The students completed 10 conferences the first year and an average of 20 each year since. At the end of each year, the students complete a survey about the training and the program. Here are some student responses:
- “I have been a lot less stressed this year”
- “I understand conflict more”
- “I’ve grown to be less shy…”
- “My friends ask me for advice to solve their problems”
- “My favorite part of the program is seeing the students’ positive reactions once they come to a solution. It’s a good feeling to know they’re happy with the results and can continue moving forward.”
The impact of the program has been amazing. Suspension rates have decreased. The students feel they are part of something powerful. They are proud of what they accomplish and I am in awe of them.
In 2017, a group of Peacekeepers presented at the World Conference for the IIRP in Bethlehem, PA. It was such a memorable experience for the students. They met Terry O’Connell, a leader of the restorative justice movement who wrote the script our students use for restorative conferences, and received so much support and positive feedback from restorative experts from around the globe. At that point, I knew I needed to share this program with other educators. It became my capstone thesis for my master’s program at IIRP.
During the 2020-2021 school year, I took it a step further and wrote the Peacekeepers manual. The manual guides leaders through how to get started with a Restorative Peacekeeper program, training components, tips and tricks, and how to stay organized. It is designed so that any restorative practitioner can pick up the book and implement it immediately. Those without restorative training are encouraged to find training or reach out to me for options. My hope is that educators see the power in empowering students to guide restorative conversations that repair harm with peers.
Jen Williams (she/her) is a middle school counselor in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where she lives with her husband and two children. Her tenure in middle school education spans two decades and includes a current state board position for PAMLE. She is the author of the new book, Peacekeepers: An Implementation Manual for Empowering Youth Using Restorative Practices.