Discussions about the fairness and impact of school discipline will always get students talking. But now a group of young New Orleans scholars is striving to move the conversation to new territory, namely into “reconciliation circles.”

It is part of a new focus on alternative discipline approaches from a youth think tank called Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, or Rethink, a program that draws children from a cross section of the city’s public schools to find solutions to shared problems. In the past, the group has stumped for safer, more environmentally friendly lavatories in schools and for healthier school lunches, and its young members have seen their research and advocacy lead to tangible change in school design and operations in New Orleans. Now, the Rethinkers are bringing new attention to reconciliation circles, a form of conflict resolution known more broadly as restorative justice.

“Our school system handles kids in a very straightforward way – suspension and expulsion,” said Lucy Tucker, a Rethink member and ninth-grader at Lusher Charter School, who spoke at a recent Rethink press conference on the topic. “If students are taken out of school unnecessarily, they fall behind.”

Through support from the local nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services, restorative justice programs are now in use at Uptown’s Walter L. Cohen High School and at Langston Hughes Elementary in Gentilly. Using this approach, when an incident occurs at school all of the people impacted by it gather within a reconciliation circle and speak up about how it affected them. With the help of adult facilitators, a reparations covenant is agreed upon by all involved to make up for the transgression.

“A reconciliation circle is a place for students to work out their problems and find solutions,” says Rethink member George Carter, a fifth-grader at the Samuel J. Green Charter School.

While new in New Orleans, restorative justice programs have proved effective in other cities, says Dr. Beverly Title, a national consultant in violence prevention for at-risk youth. For instance, she says, student fights at one Colorado school using the reconciliation circle approach dropped from 34 in one year to seven in the next.

“Someday, we hope all schools in New Orleans will have reconciliation circles,” says Vernard Carter, a Rethink member and an 11th-grader at New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy.

For more information about Rethink, visit www.therethinkers.org.