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CARBONDALE -- A troubled seventh grader at Carbondale Middle School had run out of options.

Repeated disruptive behavior on the school bus, playground, lunch room and classroom left the school little choice but to transfer him out of the facility.

But several staff members at the school refused to give up on the adolescent. Instead of sending the student out and washing its hands of the matter, the school employed restorative justice, a formative discipline system that has become part of its community growth plan.

The results have been nothing short of life-changing for the student and climate-changing for the school.

Restorative justice seeks to give the “author” of the action an opportunity to express what they felt and why they did what they did. It also gives the “receiver” of the action the opportunity to express how they felt, with a facilitator validating and interpreting the emotions and words of both author and receiver, said Michael Shimshak, Carbondale Elementary School District 95 principal.

Before this circle convened with the CMS seventh grader, peer professional Jimi Bradley took the student under his wing and slowly built up trust between himself and the student.

“It was a process,” Bradley said. “The big thing was he started to understand that he was somebody. His voice could be heard and somebody cared about him.”

The student gradually talked more and more, revealing some of the underlying causes of his behavior.

“The problem stemmed from a certain kind of home life, certain kind of environment, neighborhood he lived in,” Bradley said. “He always said he couldn’t be a punk, he couldn’t be scared, he had to always be the victor or show his strength. He had to fight for everything. My goal was to get him to understand you don’t have to fight. There’s a different way you can do things.”

Bradley and the student talked regularly from the beginning of school last year. Trust was built, but the student’s behavior still was troublesome.

The real turning point didn’t come until the circle was convened in February, and he heard the teacher who had been the receiver of his actions express her emotion.

“He saw the hurt, he saw the pain, he saw what he had caused someone,” Bradley said. “I think it really was a turning point.”

Check-ins with the student were done every Monday, and they met in circles several more times. The result is a testament of what happens when a student feels loved and learns how to communicate.

“Trust is the key,” said Jerrah Henson, director of pupil services.

After just three days, teachers have already seen the difference in the now eighth grader. But the impact goes beyond one student. He’s become a leader and is leaving his mark on other students who shared his tendency to attract trouble.

The student attended CMS’ Leadership Academy this summer. The academy employs some of the principles of restorative justice, giving students an opportunity to express themselves, be heard and validated.

“The first day he attended CMS leadership academy, you would think Michael Jordan walked in,” said principal Marilynn Ross. “The change -- even his friends could see.”

Ross said he tells her how he’s trying to steer his friends in the right direction, telling them not to fight or make some of the choices he used to make.

Bradley sees the student’s potential to make a difference with other students.

“He’s a gap bridger,” Bradley said. “It helps other teachers, it helps myself, it helps the principal. It helps us get through to those other students because he has that close relationship. He’s someone they will listen to and role model themselves after.”

But the student wants to take his story beyond the walls of his school to let people know the path of change he has found himself on.

“His goal is to have a book published, and he wants to have a book signing,” Henson said. “He has a suit picked out for it.”

When he does have his book signing, expect his biggest fan to be first in line to get his copy signed.

“The relationship we have now -- I love that kid,” Bradley said. “I legitimately love that kid like he’s my own kid.”


Chris Hottensen is the entertainment and features reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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