Story by S.L. Hansen
HASTINGS (SNR) - During the 2014-15 school year, the Hastings Catholic School System launched a new approach to dealing with bullying and other discipline issues. It’s called Virtue Based Restorative Discipline (VBRD), and it involves every student, faculty member, and parent.
“We first learned about the program through an article written in Our Sunday Visitor titled, ‘Using virtues to ward off bullying behavior,’” explained Sandy VanCura, principal of St. Cecilia High School.
As the 2012 article noted, there is a key difference between most anti-bullying programs and VBRD. Others often focus on teaching students to tolerate and accept all kinds of ideas and behaviors. VBRD, by contrast, focuses on holiness by forming students and staff in Christian virtues.
Mrs. VanCura said that it was this difference that she found so attractive in VBRD.
“VBRD’s core goal is making children into saints,” she said.
VBRD originated in the Archdiocese of St. Louis some years ago. It is a comprehensive discipline program that applies to all aspects of education — even athletics and other extracurricular activities — based on the Catholic Church’s teaching on virtue.
Mrs. VanCura brought VBRD to the attention of principal Carrie Rasmussen at St. Michael Elementary School as well as the two priest administrators (Father Thomas Brouillette and Father Lee Jirovsky), and curriculum and instruction specialist Julie Blazer. The group attended a three-day VBRD conference in St. Louis during the summer of 2014, and started staff training during the next school year.
Even though VBRD was originally developed for K-8 students, Mrs. VanCura was convinced that it could be adapted for St. Cecilia High School.
“When the focus is on ‘making children into saints and setting them on the path to holiness,’ it is difficult not to respond in a positive manner,” she said.
VBRD was officially launched at both Hastings Catholic Schools for the 2015-16 school year. An assembly for students and an evening presentation for parents introduced the program.
Each school year, a virtue is chosen for focus. Last year, the students and staff worked on the virtue of integrity. This year, it is honor.
With a virtue in mind, teachers started “catching students doing right” throughout the year. Students are recognized for demonstrating the chosen virtue.
This positive reinforcement is slowly changing school culture. A tree posted in the hall at St. Michael School was covered with colorful leaves on the last day of school last spring, each one recognizing a student or students who showed integrity.
“Now students are starting to catch other children doing good,” Mrs. Rasmussen said. “That is success, when children identify virtue on their own.”
In addition to providing positive reinforcement, VBRD also addresses how to handle negative situations.
“We still have consequences for violations of school policy —detention, in and out of school suspension,” Mrs. VanCura explained, “but there is an increased focus on restoring the harm that has been done to a relationship.”
This involves forming a restorative circle — a gathering of the offender, any person who suffered from the offence, teacher, staff, and parents, which begins and ends with prayer. Each person speaks honestly about the situation. Such forthright communication lays the foundation for creating a workable solution.
Mrs. Rasmussen recounted a time when she sat down in a restorative circle with a bully, his victim, both sets of parents, classroom teachers and the boys’ pastor for a restorative circle.
“It is very powerful for parents to witness the impact their child has on others,” she said. “The impact doesn’t stop at the child being bullied, but the parents of the child being bullied are very much affected too.”
Though difficult, and sometimes painful, to be honest about the situation, talking about it helped the offending student get back onto the path to holiness.
“After the circle, I can’t say the boys became best friends, but they treated each other with respect and bullying behavior did stop,” Mrs. Rasmussen said.
Mrs. VanCura had a similar experience when one student was targeting another who was two years younger. Both students, their parents, the principal, assistant principal and school counselor met for a restorative circle.
“By the end of the circle, the students resolved to treat each other with respect and there hasn’t been an issue between the two since,” Mrs. VanCura said.
Students also have the opportunity to share in circles regularly during theology classes. Last year, this was a big help at St. Cecilia High School, when so many students were dealing with the deaths of loved ones. Circles gave them the chance to express their struggles and get support from others.
“The power of circles lies in the opportunity for each student to have the floor with no interruptions and without being judged,” Mrs. VanCura said.
High school students are also able to mentor younger kids in VBRD. Four activities each year bring the student bodies together to focus on the chosen virtue.
Another important component to VBRD is that teachers are challenged to exhibit the same virtues that the kids work on all year. They also have restorative circles to handle disagreements.
“We have to model virtue if we want and expect our students to model virtue,” Mrs. VanCura reasoned. “We focus on trying to become ‘the person God created me to be… the best version on myself.’”
So far, it seems everybody likes this approach to discipline.
“I think VBRD is having a positive effect on our school culture,” Mrs. VanCura said.
Mrs. Rasmussen agrees.
“Catholic schools are in the business of education yes, but even more importantly, we help each other get to heaven,” she said. “VBRD is a tool that is helping Hastings Catholic Schools move us all: students, parents, teachers, and staff in that direction.”