Are "Restorative Circles" unethical?
Gather round and find out.
The Fordham Institute’s Flypaper Blog has some great headline writers. This one — Restorative circles are unethical and have no place in schools — is sure to inspire a lot of controversy and a lot of clicks. We use community circles and dabble in restorative justice at my school — and I’m always up for controversy — so I clicked.
The writer, Daniel Buck, argues that restorative circles are basically group therapy, and since group therapy should only be done by a licensed therapist, which teachers aren’t, they are a violation of the American Psychological Association’s “Code of Ethics.”
It’s an interesting argument, and while I am generally concerned at the growing list of responsibilities we add to teachers’ plates that distract them from their most important work — teaching kids — Buck misses the mark in this piece.
First, let’s define what Buck’s talking about: community circles. Our district mandated their daily use this year, and we’ve employed them in many classrooms for the last several years. They’re class meetings with more intention: teachers prepare questions (sometimes edgy ones, but not in the pejorative sense that Buck hints at) and activities to build relationships and proactively deal with student conflicts.
The term “restorative circles” as used in the headline is a bit misleading. I’ve rarely heard them referred to specifically as “restorative circles.” They find their origins in the restorative justice movement, but the specific practice he’s condemning is more akin to community circles. In the actual article, Buck doesn’t use that term, choosing instead to just call them circles or “circle conversations.”
Back to his argument that they’re unethical. Most problematically, Buck uses an article from 2018, written by an author whose bio doesn’t claim any expertise on restorative justice nor circles, to define and then bash them. The questions he uses as the basis of his “unethical argument” don’t even appear in the version of the article he linked. The whole argument feels cherry picked just to stir up controversy around a practice that, when done well, is really beneficial in schools. Especially in schools prone to violence.
Buck mentions a time when he used circle conversations during his student teaching experience and a student shared suicidal thoughts. He describes the situation as “dangerously volatile” and that he was unprepared to handle it.
Of course he was. He was a student teacher! Even if he were a practiced teacher, he wouldn’t be expected to solve the situation right there. He would refer the situation to the school counselor or social worker — not engage in group therapy.
In that scenario, a the community circle actually worked exactly as designed — building relationships and proactively dealing with conflicts. Indeed, it might have saved the students’ life and helped build empathy in the bullies who pushed them to such grave and dangerous thoughts.
That tracks with my experience of how community circles are used in our classrooms: teachers building community. Students share their life experiences, help resolve common conflicts, and engage in collaborative games and activities. They might even meditate for a few minutes. But they don’t provide group therapy. As such, they’re not violating any ethical standards.
I can see how some of the discussion prompts they use (Describe a time you felt sad, for example), might seem like therapy. These discussion are no different than the conversations we have with friends and colleagues that bring us closer together. Schools can be therapeutic without being therapy. And that’s what we strive to do in our school — and what we should be striving to do in all our schools. And maybe throughout society.
We all know that elementary and middle schools are rife with adolescent conflict, teasing, and even bullying. Community circles help students feel more connected to each other. And when students are more connected and have stronger relationships, they engage in fewer conflicts. Our school climate data reflects this. As I’ve written before, our school has fewer discipline referrals and fewer out-of-school suspensions partly as a result of community circles.
If Buck believes that building community and encouraging empathy in our schools is truly unethical, I’d wonder what his solution would be to change the epidemic of violence we’ve experienced in Philadelphia and many other cities.
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.