By Claire Withycombe

The Bulletin

LA PINE —— One day last month, Tonya Karlowicz, a media and technology coordinator at La Pine High School, walked down the hallway to find a group of students standing in a circle and talking out their problems.

Karlowicz was delighted. For about a year, she’s been researching positive behavior interventions for the school, which she and Vice Principal Anne-Marie Lessard said has faced some problems with absenteeism, self-harm and student conflict.

Conflict circles are one of the ways that the high school is implementing aspects of restorative justice, which seeks to repair harm done and emphasizes accountability. The school has also begun offering an in-school smoking cessation class and dedicated a room where students can go to refocus if behavior interferes with classroom learning.

In a conflict situation, students gather in “circles” and discuss the problem. They also confer on what can be done to fix it.

“They understand it’s a safe way to solve their conflict,” Karlowicz said in an interview last month. She and Lessard were sitting in the “Focus Room,” a quiet room where students can go to think when they feel they can’t be in class. Classical music plays, and there’s a treadmill against the wall.

After a student completes a required “moving forward” plan, and when he or she is ready to return to class, the focus room manager or teacher on duty calls the classroom teacher to confirm that it is OK for the student to return. Two corners of the room are devoted to students serving in-school suspension.

“The circles really helped me in finding the help I needed,” said Jacquelyn Bogart, 17, a junior, who has participated in a conflict circle three times. She’s one of about 30 students who have used the method. “Sometimes it’s hard to talk about stuff.”

She said although the first time she participated in a circle the other students didn’t take it seriously, when the same group reconvened later they did. The general rules are as follows: honesty and respect.

When a student intentionally broke his iPad, his fellow students suggested that he be given another, but he was required to get a heavy-duty case and take better care of it. Students in the circle must come to a consensus on what can repair the harm done and how much time they have to make the change , said Karlowicz.

Many students at La Pine — which has about 400 students — struggle with issues at home; their classroom behavior can be a reflection of that, Karlowicz said.

“Students don’t get up and say, ‘I’m going to have a terrible day today,’” Karlowicz said. “It’s usually growing out of some other thing.”

In the focus room, there’s a poster enumerating ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Events — such as abuse, neglect, loss of a parent or incarceration of a family member. Forty-five percent of students at La Pine High School had undergone three or more adverse childhood events, according to data provided to The Bulletin. Kids who used the focus room, based on information collected from September 2014 to January, had undergone an average of 5.6 adverse childhood events.

School administrators also want to address self-harm inflicted by tobacco use . Prior to the smoking cessation class, which is led by a nurse once a week for four weeks, Lessard said, the school automatically suspended students for 10 days if they were caught with cigarettes. “It doesn’t have positive effects on kids,” Lessard said of the zero-tolerance policy.

Justyn Bahr, a 15-year-old freshman who has been smoking since he was 9 years old, said the class helped him reduce his daily intake.

“I learned to deal with stress better,” he said. He used to smoke three or four packs of cigarettes a day — now Justyn is down to a quarter of a pack a day and listens to music instead. He comes to the focus room when he feels too angry to be in class, sits quietly, and returns when he’s ready.

Restorative justice has a mixed legacy in Deschutes County. In 2003, state support for a local pilot effort to invoke its principles run by Juvenile Community Justice, the Community Youth Investment Program, fizzled after it was found that there was questionable improvement in recidivism rates and the program cost more to taxpayers than sending juvenile offenders to state institutions.

But it may succeed at La Pine, where aspects of the restorative justice framework are implemented for less serious infractions and are aimed at keeping kids in school.

Karlowicz and Lessard believe the program is having an effect when it comes to student conflict: They said that each year there are a handful of physical fights at the school; this year, there have been none. They hope the trend will continue.

“It’s been really useful,” Karlowicz said. “If we can teach them to communicate peacefully when they have a conflict, that’s a tool they can take with them.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0376,