Barnstable High School students take initiative to reduce out of school suspensions
By Allysha Roth, GC New England Program Manager
This school year, students at Barnstable High School are going to get paid training to become peer mediators. Then, once they are trained, they are going to get paid every time they step out of class to help mediate a conflict that would otherwise result in harsher consequences such as an out of school suspension. If that doesn’t immediately grab your attention, then this detail should: Students did the work to advocate for this program and make sure it actually happened as part of their Action Civics project.
I recently spoke with Barnstable High School social studies teacher Mr. Jansen and two of the students involved in the project, Lucie Ells and Juliana Hamelburg. Our conversation sent me home with renewed hope and energy for the work that I do with Generation Citizen, which is training and coaching teachers who are just getting started with Action Civics. During our conversation, we discussed how they overcame challenges and what happens from here.
If there is one thing that I would choose for us all to take away from Juliana, Lucie, and Mr. Jansen, it’s this: Just like the systemic policy changes we learn about in History class, Action Civics projects develop on their own unique, non-linear, and iterative timelines. These projects are civic learning experiences that are impossible to predict or predetermine. And that’s the magic of it. As Mr. Jansen put it:
Be open-minded to what the outcome could be for the students… As long as they’re getting those experiences, it’s worth every moment.
Enjoy the highlights of our conversation. I hope you learn as much as I did.
In Fall 2021, students in Brent Jansen’s class identified how student disciplinary issues were handled as the focus issue for their Generation Citizen Action Civics project.
They had come to a consensus on the focus issue but they needed more direction, which they got through the Participatory Action Research process. As result of their action research, they identified that a strong peer mediation program could increase the effectiveness of school discipline, reduce suspensions, and generally improve the sense of belonging and connection within the school.
Lucie: Basically if you got like a certain amount of demerits you would either get a Saturday school suspension, or it just wouldn’t lead to anything. It would just be to scare students so they would think that they were getting some discipline. But we don’t really want that disciplinary aspect of it. We kind of just want to figure out other ways to get it under control, whatever problem there is.
Mr. Jansen: They’ve uncovered in the research that those demerit systems and Saturday schools didn’t actually change behavior, they were so delayed in their response. Through their work, they called other schools that had gone away from those disciplinary processes and replaced them with the peer mediation programs or other changes just to try to be more attentive to the problem than the response. And that was where [my GC coach] was able to help connect us with Ms. Banks [from Cambridge Rindge and Latin where she had established a peer mediation program]. Then she and I were connecting and I’m like, “I don’t know who this person is but she’s at least responding to me and supporting me.” As soon as we had our first Zoom meeting, I was totally sold on the idea of trying to push this through and I think the kids were starting to come around. But I would say, at that point we were definitely not fully committed and so the consensus building element was not there yet. We were there on handbook changes but we weren’t sure that this was the answer.
Lucie: Going into [the meeting with Ms. Banks] I didn’t really know a lot about [peer mediation]. And I was like, “Oh, is this gonna work?” I didn’t think that it would really go anywhere. I didn’t know anything about it. And I was like, “Okay, we’re gonna talk to this woman. She’s gonna answer some questions. Whatever.” And it was honestly really informative… She really opened my mind to it. I was like “Wow, this is something that would really help at this school,” especially as I’ve seen it degrade a little bit. From what I’ve heard and seen, it’s something that we need and I thought it was awesome.
The Action phase of their project included more research. They organized an advisory council to determine the exact needs of their community and visited Cambridge Rindge and Latin to learn more about how a peer mediation program would meet those needs.
Mr. Jansen: [Setting up the advisory council] was a step that we felt needed to be taken based on the book that [Ms. Banks] had shared with us about organizing and implementing a peer mediation program. The class chose who they wanted to invite to that so it was fully in their hands on who would be asked to participate in that group. We were trying to at that point share with them where we were at that stage, what we learned and ask what are the steps that they felt we needed to take because we didn’t have that information. The goal was to say we need your support because we don’t know how to move this forward.
Lucie: [The council] did surveys and we got more of a teacher’s perspectives because we wanted to see who would be willing to take this role on. We got a good amount of responses. We asked a lot of questions dealing with whether a lot of the conflicts were outside of the school, in the class, or if what they were noticing was in the lunchroom. Most of it wasn’t in the classroom. We would ask them if they did have a conflict in the classroom how they would deal with that. And for the most part, it’s just an interruption in the class. So it’s just easier for the peer mediator to talk to them individually instead of interrupting learning and the teacher’s time and the students. And they thought it was great.
Mr. Jansen: The advisory Council that Lucie and her classmates had established, which included teachers, administrators, and parents, wanted more information. So, Mr. Shea, one of the other teachers on the council, joined us for that trip to [Cambridge Rindge and Latin] to meet with Ms. Banks and her mediators…The two people that were running the project, Jason and Sean, were definitely not sold on this idea. By the time we left that school and on the way, fully committed.
Lucie: Yeah I definitely saw the impact that [the trip] had on those students and how just the environment they described to me was just incredible. And they were like, “Yeah everyone’s happy. It’s just so bright and a lot more freedom.” It was just like a nice environment they described.
Juliana: Just walking into the school, you can feel the difference of how they’ve run the school and how the students get along with one another better, and how they resolve their conflict. Rather than going and fighting or having an argument in the middle of the hallway, they’ll go and actually have a conversation. Even just with [the peer mediators] right there, they’ll be able to communicate with one another, make it a safer atmosphere in the school… I picked up on the fact that students are more likely to listen to one another because that’s someone your own age. Like you’re really talking, “Oh I really messed up,” rather than listening to an adult. Sometimes with certain adults, you feel like they’re kind of trying to talk down to you so then you’re not going to really listen. I think that’s what the problem really is that they feel like everybody’s just looking down on them. But if it’s their friends or their leaders, people in their class that they look up to, I feel like they’re more likely to communicate better and resolve it in a more proper manner.
Mr. Jansen: It was about the relationships that they were forming. Ms. Banks has turned the reins over for the program to a student she had as a peer mediator. All of us that were there felt that he was saying the same thing that we had felt you know about the program. When he had first heard about [peer mediation] he was like “Nah, I’m good.” And then he was the kid that got in trouble a bunch, an athlete. And now here he is, having become a peer mediator and graduated, back now running the program. And so he was an example of some of the most difficult students who this program could change their lives. And for all of us that were there that was impactful of what–beyond shifting the culture, which would be important–this could actually mean.
Juliana: It has a big impact on people’s lives. It changes them for the better.
Lucie: Especially if they have a lot going on outside. This could be something positive for them that could help them, especially if they don’t have that support outside of school.
Juliana: It makes them feel heard.
Mr. Jansen: Through the interviews that we’ve now held for the [peer mediation program] coordinator, they’re realizing that it’s not conflict now that they’re necessarily worried about. It’s helping them resolve conflicts in their lives, beyond this high school experience, that can be really difficult, marital to employment conflicts to friendships, and having the skills to be able to handle those issues…The peer remediation program is a way to avoid suspensions. So on the one hand, we’re trying to discipline. But in reality, it’s extenuating the problem because then they go home by themselves and they just continue to be online and deal with the problem and it only gets worse. So that’s where our system is stuck with what is the right response and that’s where they’re looking for this program to be a major game changer in how they can help students and still have consequences. That’s the restorative justice element that goes with the peer mediation program. The trainers are going to help [the peer mediators] come to some resolution that both parties are agreeable to.
Starting in April 2022, students started advocating to a series of diverse stakeholders in Barnstable and successfully convinced them to support the development of the peer mediation program during the current school year.
Mr. Jansen: After the trip [to Cambridge Rindge and Latin], [the advisory council members] were fully on board and were able to help us set up the meeting with the superintendent.
Juliana: We had a meeting with our superintendent, the town manager, the [Recreation] Department. And they were all on board for it. And the Rec wants to join in with us because they have problems [with conflicts] at the Rec, as well. They all agree that it’s a great program to bring here and that it’s going to lead to a much more healthy community.
Mr. Jansen: We had looked at who are those stakeholders that really we needed to get involved in the process and the first being the superintendent was a no-brainer. And through her we were able to get the connections to meet with the Chief of Police and then the Chief of Police was able to help us get the connections to meet with the District Attorney’s office. And the town manager had come in with the police chief. When they left that meeting they were fully excited to see the students go forward and create this program and helped us with the next couple of steps. At the DA’s office, there’s a liaison that works with them on these efforts in school systems to avoid these cases being brought to court. We’re going to be re-engaging with them later on. We’re just waiting for the leader of the program to be hired. Every one of them were just so impressed with the way they were able to articulate the benefits of the program and basically sold them all on why it’s so needed.
Currently, the school is in the process of hiring a program coordinator to get the program up and running in partnership with students involved in last year’s project and Mr. Jansen.
Juliana: We have just finished interviewing two candidates for being the coordinator. Then we’re gonna all, as a group, come together and share our thoughts on who we think would fit better for the position. And then we send [our recommendation] to Ms. Freedman, our principal, for them to have an interview with her for that last step before they fully get the job.
Mr. Jansen: Then they build a program. They would first organize the training that needs to happen. We have the group [of students] already identified. They’ve got their student mediators waiting in the wings. The next step that the person would have to take from there is to put the building blocks in place: where the mediations will happen, how do we get people referred into the program. The relationships and community part is the most important piece of the interviewing process that we had because it’s the foundation that this program is going to be built on. And then the other part was the confidentiality part, making sure that they’re working to really emphasize the importance that confidentiality is going to play. It is vital to its success. So those are the next steps.
Even if their advocacy for peer mediation programs hadn’t been successful, Juliana, Lucie, and their peers still would have a lot to be proud of and a new set of skills.
Juliana: I think communication is definitely the biggest thing I would take from this, and how to resolve any conflict. Whether it be with one person, a group of people or at home whatever the situation may be, it would be an outlet to make a situation into a positive outcome without having any issues get worse than they need to be.
Lucie: Everything can be resolved and it doesn’t have to lead into a bigger issue or make matters worse. Communication is key and you know you can learn and prosper from conversations.
Mr. Jansen: From my perspective, I think you (Lucie and Juliana) found your voice. You sat down with some pretty high stakes people and impressed each one of them.
Lucie: I definitely wasn’t in the best mental space last year. So I didn’t really have much of a voice because I was kind of just like staying back. And I was like “Okay, I’m gonna let Jason and Sean lead the reins here.” I was kind of more reserved because I didn’t want to upset anyone. But then it would lead to conflict because I wasn’t communicating what I needed and what I felt and how I was seeing everything. I figured out how to express those. This definitely helped me.
Juliana: Yeah, the same with me, too. I could not public speak. I didn’t like talking in front of a group of people. If it’s just me talking, everybody looking at me and actually listening to what I have to say… But having all those people, very important people, listening to me and my thoughts and all of the group’s thoughts and actually like soaking it in… it just got me more comfortable with speaking around people.
Lucie: I definitely got more confidence from it because there were so many important people, like she said, watching me. And, I felt so respected in that moment when I was talking because like all eyes were on me. And the town manager, my dad, was like, “You did awesome!” I was getting support from Kip Diggs (MA State Representative). It was so cool.
Juliana, Lucie, and Mr. Jansen want you to know that even if you’re skeptical or unsure about the project, the important thing is to stick with it and be open to what you learn in the process.
Lucie: Definitely see it through and wait for that outcome because it’s going to be so worth it. Once you see it start flourishing and what you really can do for your community and other people, and like just future Generations, is just amazing. The impact that you can have is gonna be worth it.
Juliana: Don’t give up on it. Don’t give up on it because it may be a slow start but it’s going to be worth it one hundred percent to make a better atmosphere and better connections with people around you.
Mr. Jansen: You have to rethink what the purpose of education is. The struggle here is we get stuck, as teachers, dealing with curriculum and we’re like, “I gotta get from A to Z and I got 180 days to do it and this is getting in my way.” And I can empathize with that because I teach AP curriculum in a lot of cases so I’m like “I’ve got a test that they’re gonna be preparing for. I can’t spend this time.” But there’s no better time spent than doing this work because of the confidence that they gain, the skill sets that they get through the process. And if they are able to get to this point where you have an outcome, you’ll have changed their world forever. Not many students can come back and say, “How’s the program we started?” or “Look at the impact that policy change has had.” The content doesn’t all stay with them. This will. So, for [the students] and for any teacher who’s going to be doing these projects: Don’t be close-minded on what the outcome is. In your mind, be open-minded to what the outcome could be for the students and that as long as they’re getting those experiences, it’s worth every moment.