Supporting Student “Circle Keepers” to Build Community & Help Prevent Harm

Strengthening a school’s climate can be a powerful violence prevention strategy. The loss of a sense of community, connection, and belonging in middle and high school, or a growing disengagement with school, can be factors that lead some students down a path towards violence. In some cases, this vulnerability can create openings for violent extremist groups to find recruits, or lead to self-harm or violence targeting the school community.  

The more all students feel safe at school and feel a sense of belonging and engagement in classes and school activities, the less likely any students are to engage in violence. Boosting such “protective factors,” as they are often called, can also help prevent a range of other issues that affect students’ physical and mental health.

To help youth better support each other, and strengthen their ability to build community within their schools, Karuna Center worked with local experts in restorative practices to organize a 4-hour “Circle Keepers” workshop for 33 middle and high school students and 11 school staff from Western Massachusetts schools on February 5. The workshop gave participants guidance and practice in facilitating community-building circles, which help participants feel seen, understood, and respected by their peers.

We hope that circles will help create space for a different mode of interaction in the midst of the hectic school day: a place where students can focus on building trust, goodwill, belonging, empathy, and mutual understanding across their differences. Some schools plan to hold community-building circles during their advisory periods; others will integrate them into restorative justice or peer mentoring programs. At the workshop, each student got the opportunity to first observe and reflect on community-building circles, then experience a circle as a participant, and finally, gain practice in facilitating their own circles.

Building and sustaining a positive school climate isn’t easy, given the pressures that school staff and students face today. However, for these same reasons, it is increasingly important. Just before the pandemic, a survey of grade 8. 10, and 12 youth in nine districts in Western Massachusetts showed a decline in their sense of belonging, safety, and fair treatment in schools. A 2022 survey in the same region showed an overall decline in youth commitment to school—and a sharp rise in depression symptoms, anxiety, and other mental health risk factors.

In advance of the workshop, Karuna Center’s Senior Program Manager, Jennifer Hall-Witt, spoke with staff at each school about the particular challenges in their school communities—which ranged from problems with gossip and cyberbullying to coping with high levels of student stress. Workshop facilitators Fabio Ayala (photo above), Rachel Wood, and Jason Nuñez used this information to create custom take-home scripts for community-building circles for the students, with prompts on relevant topics—such as social media & belonging, resilience in adversity, self-care, taking responsibility for mistakes, and friendships.

Throughout the workshop, all of the students were highly engaged. Their interest in—and commitment to—circle work was clear from their questions and comments. They appeared to leave with fresh confidence and new connections with their peers in other districts. We hope they have returned to their schools not only with new skills, but also feeling more energized and supported in helping build stronger communities at their schools.

 


This was the first student-focused workshop of our BRAVE Schools initiative, which works with eight middle and high schools in Western Massachusetts to strengthen their violence prevention practices. The workshop’s lead trainer, Fabio Ayala, works at the Center for Restorative Practices at Amherst College. His co-trainers were Rachel Wood, Assistant Director of Workforce Equity & Inclusive Leadership at Amherst College, and Jason Nuñez, a student intern at the Center for Restorative Practices at Amherst College. The day was generously hosted by one of BRAVE Schools’ participating schools.

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