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Monday, October 2, 2023

Organizations protect physical, mental health of students

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What was meant to be a day of celebrating love became a day of heartbreak for families in Florida when a 19-year-old gunman opened fire and killed 17 of his former schoolmates. Here in Indiana, many local organizations are working hard to prevent similar tragedies from hitting close to home. The Recorder spoke with leaders at Peace Learning Center and Midwest Psychological Center to learn more about what is being done to protect our student’s physical and mental health.

Nestled in a scenic area of Eagle Creek Park is Peace Learning Center, a nonprofit helping Hoosiers improve conflict resolution skills. For the past 21 years, Peace Learning Center has worked alongside schools, nonprofits, businesses, juvenile correctional facilities and faith groups to teach restorative justice practices that help communities acknowledge the impact of harmful actions and behaviors.

“Under the traditional system, if Johnny gets in a fight, Johnny gets a three-day Xbox vacation called a suspension. With restorative practices, Johnny has to sit in a justice circle with a parent, school staff and students who have been trained by us and everyone talks about how the behavior affected their relationship with Johnny. Then Johnny has to come up with a plan of action that adults will follow up with to make sure it is implemented,” said Tim Nation, co-founder and executive director of Peace Learning Center.

Nation believes educators need more training surrounding the social and emotional development of their students. He feels the best way to improve school experiences is to help children develop positive relationships with staff and peers. Staff members at Peace Learning Center train teachers to recognize bias in the ways they interact with students. They host workshops on restorative practices as well as workshops to help teachers identify implicit bias “An interesting statistic is that half of every student’s grade is based on their relationship with their teacher,” said Nation. “If a teacher is biased against a group of people, that has long term impacts on that student’s mental health and life outcomes.”

Dr. Shelvy Keglar with Midwest Psychological Center agrees. Keglar’s organization has worked with schools, the department of child services, job corps and more. From his experience, he believes the predisposition Black students face daily plays a huge role in how they experience school.

“I think we have minority students who, when they come to school, face inherit bias in both school and society. Those bias influences the student in a lot of ways,” said Keglar. “I have seen cartoons from The Association of Black Psychologists that depict what Black students expect when they go to school. They see the look, and understand the comments that depict them as less than the other students.”

Local high school senior Calvin Campbell agrees that if students have a positive relationship with teachers and peers their school experience will improve. He describes his school, Broad Ripple High School, as a “tight-knit community” where students and staff look after each other and keep lines of communication open.

“We don’t have very many fights or altercations. Honestly, there is not any type of direct bullying and no one picks on each other,” said Campbell. “I feel safe in school because there are so many teachers that care about the students and are willing to fight for students in the literal and metaphorical sense. Certain teachers will be willing to help students with a haircut, or if there is something (a student) wanted to attend to but could not afford it, they would help them out. If a student needed a ride, they would call them an Uber.”

At the end of the day, all agree fostering justice and equality in our education system is fundamental to creating physically and mentally healthy students.

“We as a society have to understand that there are people on the inside and on the outside. On the inside there is opportunity and resources, but for the people on the outside who want to get in they have to get through gatekeepers. The gatekeepers include the teachers, the criminal justice system. All people in these positions decide who is accepted for opportunities,” said Nation. “If Black people are more likely to be poor, to be incarcerated, to drop out of school, then something is wrong with our whole system. We need skills to do something about it.”

Learn more about restorative justice practices and implicit bias training by visiting peacelearningcenter.org.

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