A Fresh Take on Conflict Resolution

Guest Blogger Prashanth Ramakrishna, Millennium School Fellow
Prashanth is spending a gap year between high school and college with us at Millennium School, sharing his insights into crafting a better school experience for adolescents. One of his focal areas has been restorative justice, gathering best practices to design a system that trains students to be peer mediators and to proactively address social conflicts.

In middle school, I was the kid always in the principal’s office after school serving detention. I wasn’t particularly disruptive in class, and I wasn’t terribly dismissive of rules either; rather, I was chronically late — morning arrivals, class sessions, school assemblies, you name it — 127 offenses in the first semester of 7th grade alone, if memory serves. Every five tardies were punishable by one period of detention.

Now, after finally having nailed down a personal system that keeps me punctual, I can look back with some clarity and observe that my time-management issues were not about disobedience; my struggle at the time was with disorganization and distractedness. Neither were addressed in any capacity by my middle school, whose disciplinary response did more to humiliate than to help. I might have avoided years of “don’t worry, he’s always late” and “typical Prashanth” if in middle school someone had simply sat me down and said, “Let’s figure out a way to work through this.” 

More broadly, how do we replace a “student discipline” system with the teaching of conflict resolution and restorative justice? The vision is to focus less on meting out punishments like the countless detentions I served, and more on addressing underlying challenges - like my organizational skills at the time - and on equipping students with the skills to mediate and resolve conflicts with high emotional, social, and ethical intelligence. 

During my Fellowship year at Millennium School, I’m designing what we call the “Circle system.” It’s a process through which every student will learn the invaluable life skills of how to mediate conflicts - whether their own or someone else’s. Any student can “call a circle” when they believe that a core value of the school is being violated, whether because they believe one student is mistreating another, or for broader reasons - perhaps the administration chose to remove a certain class, and a group of students wants their voice heard as to why that learning experience was essential and valuable. Moreover, mediators learn to form responses that are less about punishment and more about addressing underlying causes.

Through the Circle system, students learn how to express a concern as objectively as possible, while two peer mediators, guided by a faculty member, “take on the case,” gathering information and attempting to create a mediated agreement among the parties. If necessary, there is an appeal process to a larger group of students and adults, ultimately providing their recommendation to the Head of School. The goal is to create inclusive, constructive, and restorative approaches to conflict, while also creating innumerable teaching moments, as students wrestle with ethical questions that are very real and alive for them, based on the behavior of their fellow students. 

We all want a world where more people are wise conflict resolvers. There is perhaps no better time to learn this than in middle school, when students are rapidly expanding their ability to understand others, form ethical judgments, and understand what it means to be in healthy relationships and in a healthy community.