Ralphie came to us through a disciplinary hearing in the spring of 2019 after he was charged with multiple disciplinary offenses, including fighting and drug use. He is 14 years old.
Ralphie’s case resulted in a long-term suspension and assignment to Marietta Alternative Programs and Services (MAPs), an alternative program at his local high school in Marietta, Georgia, that provides more academically-charged students who are not able , social-emotional and behavioral support. Thrive in a traditional setting.
As the duo tasked with developing plans to support Ralphie – Farhat Ahmad is Director of MAPs managing the day-to-day operations of the alternative project, and Brittney Wilson is Director of Innovation Practice and Discipline in the region – we were in Ralphie days before Ralphie arrived. Meet and make a plan.
We have a range of intervention and support strategies in place, from daily check-ins to one-on-one counseling services and group therapy, but from the day he walked into MAP, Ralphie was pugnacious in front of authority. After just a few months with us, he was caught by the Superintendent in the parking lot of the district leader’s car. He was fired from MAP and sent home to work under the supervision of MAP staff and his juvenile probation officer. Nine months later, after committing a felony assault, he was taken to the Juvenile Detention Center (YDC), a local shelter for juvenile offenders under the age of 16.
In January 2021, after losing several months of education, he was rescheduled to the MAPs program, this time conditional on his release. A juvenile court judge ordered him to take part in the program five days a week from 8am to 2pm, and Ralphie was forced to return to an environment where he had fallen behind and prepared for failure – he was 16 and entering his second year of high school , but still a freshman.
Ralphie’s story is not unique to MAPs students. Many of our students develop self-destructive behaviors at an early age, and as a result, move in and out of a variety of settings.At MAPs, we use a therapeutic approach, focusing on restorative justice and build deep relationships. For Ralphie, we knew this was going to be critical.
Working closely with the court, we know Ralphie well and have a plan for his success. We are in daily contact with him, communicate closely with his mother to strengthen family support, and maintain weekly contact with the probation officer who oversees his behavior outside of school. A key step in building a support system for Ralphie is developing a strong ecosystem that includes his family members, school and court system. In our experience, while it may be a long game, we know this support network will improve his behavior, attendance, and ultimately his academic progress.
Once Ralphie settled in, we wanted to cultivate a sense of belonging. Without strong family ties and lack of positive adult relationships in his life, it was important to convince him that he still had a strong support system – with us. If we could show Ralphie a bunch of adults on his side, there is forgiveness in the world despite his faults – we think he can turn things around.
We regularly promote restorative circles on MAP as an alternative method of discipline that focuses on treatment, not consequences. We decided to plan a restorative circle between Ralphie and the district leaders he broke into.
Sir Jose Bright— a local attorney focused on community development and a volunteer with MAPs — leads our Restoration Circle.It’s good because our students know him well because he runs every week mindfulness The meeting focuses on supporting them with de-escalation strategies so they can respond more thoughtfully in challenging situations rather than making rash decisions.
This restorative circle includes Ralphie, the district leader he broke into, the school and district leaders (that’s us), and Ralphie’s two personal advocates—a family friend and a teaching expert.
The circle is not about to confront Ralphie’s mistakes. The purpose is to show him that he is not alone – that people care about him and want him to recover. Ralphie needs to understand how his actions affect others, and the adults in his life need to understand the motivations behind his actions.
In this circle, he spoke out about the source of his pain – his father was in prison. Growing up was a struggle, he shared, and he started using drugs in eighth grade, and since then he’s been caught fighting and committing crimes. This brings up strong emotions that deepen as he reflects on how his actions affected his entire family. Those of us who know him now understand that Ralphie lashed out from where his heart was broken.
The Repair Circle isn’t a panacea, but it’s a powerful step forward for Ralphie. He owns his actions, reflects on some of the challenges that led him to act, and admits he was greatly affected by his father’s absence. This gives us hope that Ralphie will keep going.
Ralphie’s progress has not been linear. His anger still pops up from time to time, and since the circle, he has had ups and downs. The difference is that now he can reflect on his shared experiences with some adults who were willing to listen and demonstrate that they care about helping him grow, so now he is willing to listen to those adults.
At MAPs, we don’t have a hard, fast quantification of socio-emotional growth. Instead, we argue that qualitative data and interpersonal responses are the only real metrics, and in Ralphie’s case, the growth is evident.
It’s not just Ralphie that has changed because of this circle. Later that week, district leaders approached us and said, “I’ve been thinking for days — when you’re the victim of a crime, you never hear the other side of the story.” He explained that hearing Ralphie His story had a profound effect on him, helping him see Ralphie as a person rather than a perpetrator.
Recently, Ralphie was arrested for a new crime. The judge asked us to appear at his hearing and testify on his behalf. In our testimony, we share the progress he has made through the repair circle. Ralphie became easier to talk to and more willing to have a conversation than to clench her fists and shut her mouth. He was also more diligent academically, completing enough credits to finish his junior year at the end of 2021.
Thanks in part to the success of the recovery circle, Ralphie was ordered by a court to remain under house arrest and provide treatment services; things could have easily gone the other way and he would face between nine and 18 months in prison in a juvenile detention center.
There is only a fine line between what is right and what is right. We think a lot about MAPs. That’s why we talk about healing and recovery rather than punitive consequences. Implementing restorative practices faithfully is challenging, but it works well even in complex situations. In Ralphie’s case, we truly believe they are the difference between his healing and his going forward or complete self-destruction.