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Chantal Kot, a geography teacher at St. Benedict with more than 22 years experience, is one of 15 who received mediation training in 2017.

Cody Punter/The Globe and Mail

In the summer of 2018, Mackenzie, a high-school senior in Cambridge, Ont., went to meet a friend in a neighbourhood park. She had been hoping for a reprieve from the social friction that had been dogging her for months – hurtful rumours and petty betrayals had left her with bruised feelings. But when she arrived, the friend wasn’t alone. A group of classmates had tagged along, ready for a confrontation, and what started as a screaming match between Mackenzie and the others ended with threats of violence and a visit from the police. The two girls were instructed to stay away from each other.

That proved impossible. More than 1,500 students pass through St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School every year, but come September, the girls still found themselves forced together, sharing classrooms and crushes and physical space.

In previous years, teachers at St. Benedict might have just waited it out, intervening with suspensions only after a fight occurred. But this method didn’t seem to be working. St. Benedict had one of the highest rates of suspension in the province that year, and most were doled out to repeat offenders.

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But by the fall of 2018, in an attempt to help prevent escalating student conflicts, school officials were taking a new approach. They had begun working with Community Justice Initiatives, a local non-profit that offers mediation services. Teachers were being trained in the use of restorative justice circles, an alternative approach to discipline, which – despite being part of our criminal justice system for more than 40 years – has only recently been gaining popularity in schools across Canada. Elsewhere in Ontario, public schools in Durham, Hamilton-Wentworth, and Keewatin-Patricia have integrated restorative techniques in the classroom. In 2016, Simon Fraser University in B.C. partnered with the Port Coquitlam School District to offer circle training to teachers.

It’s easy to see the appeal: During the first year of using circles, the rate of suspension at St. Benedict dropped by half.

In their most simplified form, restorative circles aim to heal social divides by asking participants to sit in a circle and discuss how a given incident has affected them. Respect and empathy are key, and it’s firmly impressed upon the students that taking responsibility for their actions is a necessary step toward rebuilding trust (or, at least, stabilizing a volatile situation).

Chantal Kot, a geography teacher at St. Benedict with more than 22 years experience, is one of 15 who received mediation training in 2017. The ultimate goal, she explained, is to teach students and teachers how to disagree and resolve conflict respectfully – before problems escalate to the point of requiring suspension.

When you all of a sudden see students having those strategies in place, to avoid those potholes, and you see them actually using them, it’s an amazing feeling

— Chantal Kot

“When you all of a sudden see students having those strategies in place, to avoid those potholes, and you see them actually using them, it’s an amazing feeling,” she said. “And you hope that they carry that into their lives.”

Ms. Kot has been doing mediations between students for more than two years and has noticed some striking trends. Most conflicts she deals with are rooted in mistaken assumptions, and when students get suspended, misunderstandings can escalate into cruel bullying over social media, where teachers can’t bear witness. Giving kids a safe place to talk it out can be all they need to avoid potentially explosive situations.

In Mackenzie’s case, teachers decided to intervene with mediation right away, and thanks to the training they’d received, they didn’t have to call in outside help or rely on a single guidance counsellor. The girls met in a quiet, private office where Ms. Kot mediated a candid conversation about their interpretations of each incident. The girls set new boundaries and wrote them down, agreeing to abide by the terms of their own, carefully crafted ceasefire. (Since she is a minor, The Globe and Mail has withheld Mackenzie’s last name at her request to protect her.)

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The students didn’t leave the room as friends, but when The Globe caught up with Mackenzie eight months later, there hadn’t been any new arguments between them.

“It probably would have turned out really bad,” Mackenzie said. There’s no doubt in her mind that there would have been more fighting and suspensions had it not been for the mediation. “We’re on good terms right now, which is good, because I wouldn’t want to go through that again.”

We’re on good terms right now, which is good, because I wouldn’t want to go through that again

— Mackenzie, a high-school senior in Cambridge, Ont

The successful outcome in Mackenzie’s case does not stand alone. In the year following the mediation training, the school went from having one of the highest rates of suspension in the province (316 incidents in 2016-17), to one of the lowest (163 incidents in 2017-18).

Why does lowering the suspension rate matter? According to numerous studies over the past decade, suspensions serve mainly to alienate students from their community, negatively affecting reading ability, increasing student dropout rates and lowering college entrance scores. While it might work well for overburdened teachers in the short term – problematic kids aren’t around to cause disruptions – it won’t actually correct any behavioural problems.

Perhaps the most telling statistic to come out of St. Benedict’s experiment with restorative justice lies in the recidivism rate. In all 2017-18 cases, students who went through the circle mediation process just one time never offended again.

St. Benedict is just the beginning. The Waterloo Catholic School Board in Ontario hopes to replicate the program’s success in a massive way: The board decided to integrate mediation training at 30 of their elementary schools last year. Long-term results have yet to be collected, but the hope is that children who learn restorative techniques early on will bring those values with them into high school and beyond.

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Other factors could be influencing the numbers at St. Benedict, but teachers and administrators don’t shy away from pointing to mediation as a likely cause. Some students have even started taking it upon themselves to request mediation sessions long before teachers notice there’s a problem.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said St. Benedict vice-principal, Erin Riley. “Can we equate all of our success to that? Probably not, but it helps move kids forward and create a culture in our school that’s about accountability and respect.”

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