- Associated Press - Sunday, December 13, 2015

HASTINGS, Neb. (AP) - Students at Hastings Catholic Schools are being challenged to do the right thing, even when no one is watching.

The Virtue Based Restorative Discipline program was adopted by the district in 2014 at St. Michael’s and St. Cecilia in response to concerns about bullying.

Conceived by Lynne Lang, director of school climate for the Catholic Education Center in the Archdioceses of St. Louis, the program is being used by Catholic schools across the nation. Initially introduced to address bullying, the program has shown itself to be a far more comprehensive tool in terms of how it seamlessly crosses into all aspects of education, including extracurricular and athletic endeavors.

Still in its infancy stages locally, it is slowly but surely transforming the hearts and minds of students, faculty and parents alike, said George Toman, a counselor and school psychologist who heads up the program for Hastings Catholic Schools.

The Hastings Tribune (https://bit.ly/1OPELcV ) reports that 26-year-old Toman assumed leadership of the program in this, his first year as full-time counselor.

Already he has seen the fruits of what is possible, though he believes the best is yet to come.

“Even though education needs to be student-oriented, we want this to be a full culture-changing, transformational project,” Toman said. “The component of having everyone learn how to do good, regardless of feelings, regardless of emotions, will help us all at the end of the day. You can’t just teach it and hope things happen.

“At St. Michael’s, the teachers are holding each other accountable to hold up to virtues, and at St. Cecilia, we have staff who are purposefully engaging to become more virtuous themselves. We also have a parent component, which kind of brings everything together. If we have our students, teachers and parents on board, we’ve got a pretty good system overall.”

In implementing the program, students gather to form circles of trust and share their feelings openly and honestly with their classmates.

All information shared is kept confidential, giving participants the freedom speak their mind without fear of having their words used against them at a later time.

Toman sees the program as a two-part proposition. The virtue-based side of it stresses the importance of doing the right thing at all times, while the second offers a positive response to negative behaviors designed to make things right for all parties affected by incidents of bad behavior.

“The component of having everyone learn how to do good, regardless of feelings or emotions, will help us all at the end of the day,” Toman said. “We’re trying to infiltrate that slowly but surely into athletics, academics . every single realm we can.”

“With the second part, it’s important that we find ways to not only help the victim of a situation, but also help the offender and surrounding community in terms of growing a more systematic process to find some healing to whatever degree possible to help make the situation better for everyone.”

To accomplish that healing, effective communication is needed between all parties involved, he said.

Bringing the parents of victims and offenders alike into the conversation enables the restorative process to resonate beyond the campus and into the everyday lives of those affected.

“It really focuses on effective communication,” Toman said. “One of the key barriers for a program to succeed or fail is the communication component. We know that with good programs it’s important that communication is open between students and staff. This is about talking to one another and trying to find solutions in a safe place.

“We’re trying to be as open as we can, trying to figure out a way to make this better. When we do that, then we’re able to find really good solutions. It holds people accountable in that there was a meeting, this is what we said, and now let’s go ahead and try to live it out and do a good job with it.”

At St. Michael’s, where students spend the day learning inside their home rooms, the program’s lessons are incorporated throughout the daily lesson plan.

Teachers who “catch” students doing something virtuous may choose to reward them by documenting their good deed and posting it on the “virtue tree” filled with names and examples of virtuous behaviors that adorns the wall in the school hall.

Fifth-grader Quinn Stewart is among those whose behavior earned him a leaf of recognition on the virtue tree.

His virtue: Holding the door for younger students to pass through.

“It feels good when I walk by it,” he said of seeing his leaf on the tree. “It reminds me of what I’ve done and makes me feel like I can get on the wall more times. I feel like I’m getting integrity and doing what’s right.”

Classmate Etta Schreiner is still working to join the virtue tree. She said she likes how the program has served to elevate good behavior by students on campus.

“It makes me want to do what’s right and help others kids,” she said. “You know somebody is always watching when you’re doing something good. And if they’re not, you’re still doing good. I want to be on the tree so I keep doing it right. When I get older, I just want to be a nicer person and know what’s right.”

At St. Cecilia, students most often are introduced to Virtue Based Restorative Discipline ideas and lessons through circles conducted in religion class. Those lessons are then reinforced by faculty members and coaches during lesson plans taught throughout the day.

Teams of faculty members serving as program team leaders provide tips and guidance to those who may need a refresher course on program goals and methods of implementation.

“In the leadership tree, the building principals are kind of our main go-getters in terms of making the VBRD happen,” Toman said. “Other teachers see them as a resource to help facilitate the process. My job is just to make everyone better.”

Players from the state champion volleyball team at St. Cecilia are complimentary of the program, suggesting it helped them to overcome their slow start this season.

“Honestly, at the beginning and partway through the season, I don’t think anybody gave us a chance to be state champs,” said senior outside hitter Lil Sheehy. “Then we did the VBRD and it definitely brought us together.

“Coach (Thera) Jones said we needed to fix something that was happening here, so we just kind of hashed out how we felt and what we needed to improve on. It definitely made us a better team in the long run.”

Senior outside hitter Regan Esch said Virtue Based Restorative Discipline tools used by the team helped make that conversation possible.

“Our team was a lot closer after we had our circle,” Esch said. “It helped everyone get their issues out and made us stronger mentally.”

Senior libero Shandra Farmer credits the program with giving her and her teammates improved insight into each other’s daily lives. Because of that, she feels they are better equipped to help one another succeed, both in the classroom and on the court.

“It’s just kind of an open and honest communication,” Farmer said. “It helps us get closer and make right decisions. In our school circles in class, it helps us realize the things that some of our classmates are going through and dealing with in school. It helps you put yourself in their shoes and gives you a perspective of everyone, not just yourself.”

Senior center Brittany Mangers thinks the team became a more cohesive unit after using the Virtue Based Restorative Discipline tools of communication.

The end result - a more positive outlook - made all the difference in terms of improving team morale during its turnaround the latter part of the season.

“Everyone on the court became more positive,” Mangers said. “Knowing what everyone is going through, you don’t jump to conclusions about everything because a person could be having a difficult time in their life that you don’t know about.

“In volleyball, everyone wanted to focus on what they were doing well but not on the negatives. When it came to the hitters and passers, we said we felt people were putting all the negatives on us, so we worked on that and helped each player build their confidence.”

Toman expressed optimism for the program going forward, suggesting that eventually it could elevate the culture of the school community over the long haul. And that, he said, would be of tremendous benefit to the community at large.

“We’re growing in those good habitual dispositions to do good,” he said. “Eventually, it’ll just become part of our culture. It’s just like a successful team that becomes championship caliber. That becomes the expectation going forward.

“The same thing can be said with our Catholic school system, both at St. Michael’s and St. Cecilia. If we do the right things and grow in the right direction together as a whole, then it just becomes part of our culture. If one of our main duties is to be able to help students to be the best they can be, not only academically, but also spiritually and emotionally, then this program as a whole is also going to get to that point.”

Achieving buy-in to the program from students, teachers, and parents has been relatively easy to this point, Toman said. And that is likely why the program already has begun to yield positive fruit in terms of influencing behaviors in a positive way.

“There are many stories out there of bullying programs failing,” he said. “The reason is probably that there are two things missing: Effective communication and people being on board with it. Without those things, it’s very difficult to change a culture of bullying or bad behaviors.

“As we continue this process - and it is a slow process - we’re trying to have everyone on the same page. That’s a cool image in my mind, because as we all move forward with it, we just become a culture of winning, a culture of virtue. And it benefits everyone.”


Information from: Hastings Tribune, https://www.hastingstribune.com

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