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Together We Rise: Restorative Justice and Speaking Up on Gang Violence
Each Monday, we'll bring you a story from our 25 years that illustrates the impact that our network of corps members and alumni have had on education. This week, we feature Charla Agnoletti (Colorado '09), whose concern about the gang violence around her school site led her to the power of the connection circle.
This past spring, there were four murders in one week in the neighborhood surrounding our school. Students were in hiding because their homes were targeted with rounds of bullets and Molotov cocktails. The entrance to the local elementary school was tagged with threats of violence. In addition, our school rests on the border of two rival gang territories and student gang involvement had been escalating for months. Sadly, there was minimal conversation with our students about what was going on and the impact of the violence.
I was concerned that we weren’t addressing this as a school and approached my administration. Together we provided options for our teachers to respond. One of those options was to facilitate a connection circle. As a Restorative Justice Coordinator, I developed our school’s circle practice. For many of our students, circle was a routine in our community. Circle is a sacred tradition and serves as a space for all occasions: to celebrate, to approach conflict, to learn values, and to explore our interconnectedness.
Tagging at the elementary school just blocks away read "Welcome to Die School"; many parents kept students out of school due to fear.
Our monthly circles with sixth graders occurred on the same week as the intense violence. I threw away the pre-planned lesson. Instead, 11 and 12-year-olds from rival gang families were asked to share their truth. I asked the students to anonymously write their experiences with the current situation. I read aloud their comments, and some of the following were shared:
“My whole family is in a gang and I’m constantly scared.”
“I live in the apartments where the shooting happened this weekend. I heard it all."
“It used to be calm in our neighborhood. Now I’m afraid to play outside because of gunshots.”
There were tears, heartbreaking stories, and lots of fear. In the end there was no action or resolution. Just space. The circle unified us and validated the student’s experiences. Those circles strengthened my relationship with the students and, although we couldn’t change the situation, we created refuge during a difficult time.
Later that week I got a call from a 12th grade teacher who said, “Get up here ASAP.” Within minutes I entered her classroom, expecting to mediate a conflict, and instead, I found her students in circle. We shared stories, insights, and connection in the midst of tragedy. Again, no resolution. Only a space to validate their experiences and feed seeds of hope in their hearts. I encouraged them to stand up to make our school safer; if they had ideas, I wanted to support.
None of the students came with ideas. Instead, something unexpected happened. One of those girls came to my office and shut the doors. She explained that on her walk home, gang members who gather below her apartment saw her school sweatshirt and said that our school would be targeted the next day. She was intensely fearful of retaliation and refused to identify the young men. She kept saying, “I just can’t imagine if something happened and I didn’t say anything.”
We called in the administration, and our school went on lockdown. Although there was suspicious activity that afternoon, no violence or further threats occurred that year. Some said the lockdown was overreacting to hearsay. Similarly, her courage might have protected our school from violence.
I realized that the circle process was integral to her speaking up. It affirmed her voice and gave her confidence that our community would value her concern. If it weren’t for that circle, I’m not certain that this student would have spoken up.
I’ve been fortunate to carry what we’ve been able to do with circles and social justice education to impact the Denver community on a bigger scale. Today, I’m the Director of the Public Achievement Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I teach two classes to nearly 40 undergraduate students. A major part of their coursework involves directly working in one of four different K-12 schools to serve close to 350 low-income youth—many of whom are students of color—ages 9-18. They facilitate youth-led research, and act to address many of the same issues through culturally relevant teaching and critical pedagogy.
When I look back at my corps experience and connect it with what I do now, I always think about that circle and that young woman’s courage. Those moments constantly remind me that as educators, we must prioritize space and time to validate our students’ voices and experiences. They could save lives, protect a school, or simply remind someone that they are part of a community that cares.
For a guide on classroom circles, visit the Guide to Restorative Justice Circles from healthiersf.org.