Circles of Understanding A pilot Restorative justice project

In April 2019, the Institute for Public Administration (IPA) at the University of Delaware (UD) and the Delaware Center for Justice (DCJ) partnered to pilot Circles of Understanding for youth who were involved with the School Offense Diversion Program (SoDP) due to an in-school arrest, and their families.

  • Who? Ten students, their ten supporters, and staff from UD and DCJ
  • What? Four Circles of Understanding held over four weeks
  • Where? Community Services Building in the City of Wilmington, Delaware
  • When? Tuesday evenings in April 2019
  • Why? To provide an opportunity to share their experience with school discipline, hear the experiences of others, and build connections and supportive relationships

Who Participated?

Students who participated in the Circles were between 13 and 19 years old and came from middle and high schools in the Red Clay Consolidated, Brandywine, and Christina School Districts and one charter school. Participants in the family Circles were mothers, fathers, grandparents, mentors, sisters, brothers, best friends, and significant others.

What Are Circles of Understanding?

Circles are a restorative justice practice that give people in community an opportunity to share their experiences in a safe space and gain understanding of themselves and others through respectful conversation.

Circles are designed and facilitated by a neutral party, called a Circle Keeper, who ensures that all voices are heard and that discussions are respectful and stay on-track.

What Happened Each Week?

Each week began with a shared meal and an opportunity to get to know one another. IPA and DCJ staff facilitated introductions and discussed what to expect during the evening.

After dinner, the attendees split into two groups: students who participated in SoDP and the people who support them. Each group participated in a Circle that was designed to fit each group's needs and facilitated by neutral Circle Keepers.

At the end of each Circle, the two groups were brought back together. Each person was offered a small gift as a thank you for their participation and asked to complete an evaluation about their experience.

What Happened in the Circles?

Student Circle

In the Student Circles, the Circle Keepers led fun activities to find common interests and build relationships within the group. Each week, the Circle Keepers guided the group through a series of questions to provoke deeper, thoughtful responses.

Circle Keepers prompted the students to think about how their experiences with school discipline affected their views of themselves, their relationships with others, and their goals for the future. The questions helped students identify personal strengths, recognize their emotions, and envision their ideal future.

Throughout the Circles, students expressed feeling grateful being able to share their side of the story and to know they are not alone in their experience.


Family Circle

In the Family Circles, which included the parents, grandparents, mentors, siblings, and friends who supported the students, Circle Keepers designed questions to help reflect on their experience with school discipline, their strengths and concerns, and their hopes for their student’s future.

Why Circles of Understanding?

The school disciplinary system is a whirlwind of emotions, events, and consequences. The project was created to give kids and their families a time and place to process and reflect on their experience and hear from other people with similar experiences. At the end of four weeks, students and their supporters described the Circles of Understanding as “fun,” “helpful,” “supportive,” “uplifting,” and “rewarding.”

“Me and my daughter learned that we’re not the only ones. There are other people with the same issues and same experiences that we can both learn from.” — Parent

What’s Next?

  • In the spring of 2020, UD and DCJ staff will offer Circles of Understanding to a new group of students who participated in SoDP.
  • Students from the 2019 Circles will be invited to serve on the Student Leadership team to share their crucial insights and experiences.
  • The Student Leadership team will help design the 2020 Circle Series and act as co-Keepers during the Circles.

Are You Interested in Circles?

If you’re interested in bringing Circles to your group, participating in a Circle, or learning more about our work in restorative justice and conflict resolution, please contact Jessica Velez at jessicav@udel.edu or visit www.bidenschool.udel.edu/ipa/serving-delaware/crp.

If you’re interested in learning more about the SoDP program, the students it serves, and their experience with school discipline, view the Spring 2016 advocacy brief here or watch this video, produced by DCJ intern Rebekah Schrier.

Created By
Jessica Velez