As principal Holly Booth walks up the stairs at Mille Lacs Academy School, she greets a group of students standing in line. “Good morning, Holly,” replies one of the young boys.
About 20 years ago, a student addressing a principal by their first name might have come off as disrespectful and earned a warning or at the very least a stern look, but at this school, a newer approach to conflict resolution has taken shape over the past few years.
The Mille Lacs Academy School, which currently has about 70 male students between fourth and twelfth grade, works in tandem with the Mille Lacs Academy, the boarding section for all the students.
Students who attend Mille Lacs Academy undergo treatment regarding mental health, and the school provides a learning environment for the adolescents.
Restorative justice is an approach that’s being used at Mille Lacs Academy School that stands in stark contrast to the zero tolerance policies that, until recently, permeated throughout schools.
Restorative justice focuses on the students who caused harm accepting responsibility and making restitutions with students or staff.
“We go by first name basis with our students,” said Booth “We’re people here, you know; we’re here working with you as students. We have things we need to get through and I need to do, but let’s do it together as people.”
Addressing everyone, even authority figures, by their first name aligns with the overall goal of restorative justice, sometimes called restorative practices, which is to include the student in the problem-solving approach and thereby de-escalating certain problematic situations.
“It’s not just that we’re at school recalling facts, like No Child Left Behind focused on. But now you’re getting your academics, and you’re also getting those life skills. It’s a good approach,” said Tim Sarych, a behavioral interventionist at Mille Lacs Academy School. “It’s a much safer approach that we have found.”
Sarych said restorative justice can help provide closure to certain situations, like disagreements between two peers or a student having difficulty with an assignment, as opposed to those issues continuing day to day.
The school focuses on two main restorative practices: the classroom approach, which involves a conversation within an entire class, and restorative conservations, which are personal conversations between students and staff or student to student.
For the classroom, specific issues are not the focus, according to Sarych.
“It’s more about getting the kids to buy-in to what you’re doing in the classroom,” said Sarych.
As far as the more intimate conversations, Sarych said the focus isn’t on someone saying sorry for their behavior but in looking at issues through a different lens.
“Usually nine times out of 10, at the end, the student or the staff or both are apologizing to each other without that requirement because it is so positive and successful,” said Sarych.
Sarych’s first exposure to restorative practices was three years ago during a conference in Duluth where he was given an introductory course.
“It piqued my interest,” said Sarych. “A lot of it was like, yeah, we do a lot of that, but we don’t really realize we’re doing it.”
When Booth came on as the principal a year later, she partnered with Sarych to move forward with a much more consistent process at the school.
While the school has set outlines for these conversations, Booth said the processes allow for more free flowing conversations, as well.
Booth said the restorative justice model uses different avenues for dealing with issues as opposed to simply punishing a student like in traditional school settings.
“This model is saying, ‘let’s have that conversation out in the open.’ [The model] lets you say, lets me say, lets everybody say, how they feel and how it’s affected them and the other person, and then we’ll move forward,” said Booth. “It’s a way for everybody to have a voice in the room and the environment.”
Sarych said restorative practices also allows students to express their feelings before a potentially negative outcome occurs, which makes the learning environment safer for everyone.
“They have a family life and home life in addition to school life. There can be a lot going on for them, and we don’t want to pile too much on. Let’s address it, and that’s where it makes things more safe,” said Sarych.
Because of the newly implanted practices, there’s been a decrease in student suspensions and the need for physical holds, according to Booth.
Physical holds, or physically restraining students, is only allowed in extreme emergencies like when a student is attempting to harm themselves or someone else, according to Booth.
Both Booth and Sarych said no physical holds were required the previous year, and they credit restorative practices with de-escalating situations before they reached that point.
Also, according to Booth, school suspension decreased from 73 in the 2016-2017 school year to four suspensions in 2017-2018 and slightly increasing to six suspensions in 2018-2019.
Booth said she doesn’t want to take all the credit for these improvements at the school.
“I am only one member of the amazing team. It is a huge team effort here at MLA School,” said Booth. “The concepts and ideas of [restorative justice] have been in place for a long time and are fine tuned each year. The staff at MLA are what makes all of the great things we do happen!”
Booth said that restorative justice can be very time consuming and requires all staff to buy into the model and participate.
“But the payoff and reward from it is just huge,” said Booth. “It’s worth all of that extra time because students are making more positive choices and having more positive interactions with their peers.”