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Maryland Schools Using Conflict Resolution To Curb Bullying, Suspensions

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Students at Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring hold weekly dialogue circles to share emotions problems and resolve disputes.
Armando Trull/WAMU
Students at Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring hold weekly dialogue circles to share emotions problems and resolve disputes.

Almost a dozen schools in Maryland, from elementary to high schools are engaging students in a conflict resolution strategy. It's part of a push to follow new national guidelines to reduce school suspensions and keep juveniles out of the justice system.

Students at Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring begin their week by arranging desks into a "restorative dialogue circle."

"It's an alternative to a strictly punitive model of discipline in which students are given the opportunity to talk through what's happened and then collaboratively they can come up with solutions," says Barbara Sugarman Grochal, with the University of Maryland's law school.

Emma Polito, 14, has participated in dialogue circles for almost three years.

"We get into less fights and it's easier to solve things and people come to me for help if they need it," Polito says.

Dillon Harding, 13, began the circles four weeks ago.

"It's helped a lot because now I can trust a lot more people, especially my friends," Harding says. "Because usually I don't really tell them a lot about myself, but now  I feel free to tell them whatever I want to tell them."

Those pebbles of kindness are creating broader ripples, says Eric Wilson, Sligo's principal.

"A lot of the typical bullying behavior does get diminished and that's been shown in our referral data," Wilson says. "Our suspension data has gone way down — I would say 80 percent from our time last year."

Advocates are hoping these circles will break the pipeline feeding young people of color into the juvenile justice system on a macro level.

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