Howard County school officials are training teachers and students on how to build relationships that will lead to peaceful conflict resolution.
At Wilde Lake High, which has reported six physical fights among students this school year, including three in the last three weeks, principal Rick Wilson is also enlisting the help of parents, and sent a letter to parents Dec. 4 to address a physical altercation between several students three days before.
The letter informed parents that “a very visible fight” broke out among students, causing minor injuries to school staff and a resource officer who intervened. No students were injured.
Wilson said the students involved were disciplined in accordance with the school system’s Code of Conduct. Although he did not specify what prompted any of the fights, Wilson explained that most of them stemmed from conflicts in the community, outside school hours, and involved students from other schools.
“I kindly ask that you take some time … to speak with your children and remind them that the adults in their lives are here to provide for their safety and to guide them through difficult situations,” Wilson said in the letter. “We have trained personnel throughout the building if he or she feels the need to talk to a trusted adult.”
Wilson’s letter reiterated that proper communication between all parties safely defuses situations.
“Conflict is a natural part of life,” the letter read, “However, as adults, we know that conflict should not result in violence. No matter your child’s personal background, he or she deserves the chance to feel safe and have an education equal to any of their peers.”
Brian Bassett, a spokesman for the school system, said disciplinary actions are necessary but are reactionary; school officials must be proactive to prevent physical altercations, typically initiated by words or actions. Counselors, school psychiatrists, administrators, coaches and teachers are available to students for support any time, he said.
“The most effective way to prevent a physical altercation before it happens is through conversation,” Bassett said. “It is not OK to resort to fighting and certainly not OK to bring that behavior to school.”
The “greatest tool” to prevent altercations is by creating a dialogue with families and communities, he said.
The Maryland State Department of Education began requesting student arrest reports at all levels in the 2015-16 school year, Bassett said. According to the most recent data for Howard schools, there were 242 arrests in the 2015-16 school year. Officials documented 167 arrests in high schools, 32 at the middle school level and eight at the elementary school level.
The majority of arrests were males, 164, with 78 females arrested. All arrests occurred on school grounds.
Data for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years are not yet available.
An arrest was reported at Oakland Mills High School in November when Howard County police charged two 14-year-old girls with weapons violations, following an argument that escalated when a student tried to cut another student with a pocketknife. Police found out the other student was also in possession of a pocketknife after the fight, which injured two staff members.
To prevent recurring acts of violence, Kevin Gilbert, director of diversity, equity and inclusion, said his office is working to expand relationship-building skills, known as restorative justice practices, and train staff at more schools. These practices teach students how to create and maintain healthy relationships with their peers, focusing on social and emotional development.
Since 2012, 34 schools have been in the process of implementing restorative practices, mostly at the middle and high school level. The process to fully implement and change culture in all county schools could take three to five years, Gilbert said.
Rosanne Wilson, a specialist for positive behavioral supports and anti-bullying in the school system, said students and teachers are participating in restorative justice practices in small groups, called circles.
“In restoring a relationship, if a relationship was never there, then it’s not going to work,” Wilson said. “A lot of times, schools want training on the discipline part of restorative practices [and] want to know how to facilitate a circle that brings the victim and the offender together, so that both can tell their story. Then, they come up with a means for some kind of an agreement to say this is how we’re going to move forward so that this doesn’t happen again.”
However, school staff must be trained to learn how to facilitate the circles, she said.
“That’s why bringing people together in a circle is so important,” Gilbert added. “There’s no power dynamic [and] breaking down the power dynamic is important in establishing and building trust.”
Colleen Morris, president of the Howard County Education Association, said the teacher’s union has worked with the school system, National Education Association and the Community Justice for Youth Institute in Chicago, Ill., to facilitate “peace circle training” for educators and administrators as well as parents and community members.
The school system and teacher’s union held a four-day training session last year with seven county schools, she said, focusing on the origin of peace circles and how they improve school climate.
“The emphasis in the training was on how the implementation of peace circles can build trust, promote social and emotional well being and facilitate harmonious relationships,” Morris said. “Just like teaching academic subjects requires planning, preparation and knowledge of students, peace circle implementation relies on well-trained facilitators to insure a safe learning environment is created.”
HCEA is currently writing a grant to NEA to continue incorporating restorative justice into the school system.
Reporter Kate Magill contributed to this story.