Conflicts are unavoidable in life. That’s particularly true in high schools, where young minds and growing bodies can lead to more than just mere disagreements; sometimes those arguments and issues can change the trajectory of a student’s future  — and not in a good way. 

Enter a relatively new concept for educators at Harrison High School: restorative justice. 

This is how it works: At Harrison, peer groups meet for discussion, to resolve conflicts and to find solutions that don’t equal suspension or expulsion. Led by Chloe Delisle, the peer mediation class trains junior and seniors at Harrison to become mentors for the freshman class, which is typically the time when students experience troubles, lower grades and drop-out rates. 

“We know we have students slipping through cracks, and that is ninth grade transition,” Delisle said. “The number of Fs we see from ninth graders usually correlates a little too well with non-graduation rates as a result. Is there something we can do to trap them at the ninth grade level and get them going to where they should be going? ... The Link Crew Program is a national program that looks at transitioning middle schoolers into high school. We’ve taken the idea from that program of the transition time, and we’ve combined it with restorative justice to create a class.” 

Delisle’s peer mediators received training in restorative justice practices from the Youth Transformation Center, a local nonprofit that works to provide training and tools to teach youth and young adults about restorative justice. 

“They used to have in-person help, but now with remote structures they’ve also developed some remote modules that we can access, which means we’ve been able to expand the number of students and staff members that have access to the training,” said Simons. “We had all of our study hall teachers access the connection circle training, so they can run connection circles in their study halls, but we also had the students access the training, as well as the restorative justice training and the pre-conference training, all of that was through the Youth Transformation Center.”

The connection circles are a big part of the restorative justice and peer mediation process. 

“We have to begin with trust, and if there is no trust, there will not be honest conversation, and we need to have that honest conversation,” said Delisle. “What we’ve found is when you start with a simple thing like a connection circle, which is really just a circle of peers; there’s a question, and you choose to answer the question or pass — and that choice is yours — but it allows for people to hear different perspectives, learn about each other in different ways, and you kind of build up the questions to become more and more rigorous. It’s a really cool way to start building relationships with students.”

For Delisle, relationships are a key component of peer mediation. 

“Peer mediation is how we build relationships here at Harrison and how we rebuild relationships,” she said. “First we have to build those relationships up, we start with the freshmen. Freshmen knowing day one when they enter school that they have someone they can talk to — a peer, it doesn’t have to be an adult. At the end of the day, we know that students listen to other students first. As much as we would love for them to listen to the adults first, they don’t. They’re kids;they listen to students, so let’s have students leading from the beginning.” 

“Restorative justice was an initiative that came to us about five years or six years ago through the initiative of our previous superintendent, and then that commitment has continued with our new leadership,” said Harrison High School Assistant Principal Mindy Simons. “What that has meant at the school level is we’ve had students who, when they’re in conflict, they’ve had access to mediators to help them mediate through that conflict. What’s been our growth is that we’ve incorporated students in this process to the point now where we have a class that helps run and facilitate our restorative justice circles, so when students are in conflict they’re not going to adults, they’re going to students who facilitate that problem-solving process.”

Simons says the program is showing results at Harrison. 

“In the past where we would see conflict reoccur, we’re not seeing that anymore,” she said. “We’re seeing when students are in conflict, and they go through that process, that conflict is not reoccurring. It’s stopped that piece of it, which meant the process, we feel from our perspective, we’ve seen some success in changed behavior and decisions from kids.” 

Harrison High School Principal Peter Vargas says the peer mediation class is a dream come true. 

“This was a dream of ours, to bring this to our school,” he said. “High schools don’t do this. I talked to Ms. Simons and I said, ‘Let’s bring this [student-centered learning], let’s connect it to restorative justice, let’s connect it all together. Ms. Simons then goes to Poudre High School and see this, says ‘I think we can get this operating.’ To watch our kids turn into leaders and being able to do those things, I just sat back like a proud dad and smiled. They created something I foresee in the next two to five years is just going to be a part of not only our, but a lot of different high schools because of the vision they created.”

School administrators aren’t the only ones looking at restorative justice. 

State Sen. Pete Lee, whose district includes Southeast Colorado Springs,has long been an advocate for criminal justice reform, and he sees restorative justice as a tool to improve the criminal justice system. 

“I think restorative justice is effective because it addresses shortcomings in the criminal legal system, understanding that punishment rarely changes behavior,” said Lee during the May 21 Law Day 2021 Law Enforcement Reform Symposium organized by the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission and the El Paso County Bar Association. “Restorative justice treats people with respect and with dignity and it empowers victims by focusing on their needs and it allows them to ask questions of the responsible party and allow them to participate in the setting of consequences. I think restorative justice is a good alternative because we can’t continue down this path of mass-incarceration and repetitive recidivism and unsuccessful outcomes. We’ve also used it in schools to address misconduct in schools. Rather than expelling and suspending kids, they go through a restorative justice process, it gives them an opportunity to stay in school and sometimes repair the harm right in school.” 

Heidi Beedle is a former soldier, educator, activist, and animal welfare worker. She received a Bachelor’s in English from UCCS. She has worked as a freelance writer covering LGBTQ issues, nuclear disasters, cattle mutilations, and social movements.