IGNACIO – Willow Schulz, an eighth grade volleyball player at Ignacio Middle School, is the youngest certified restorative justice specialist in La Plata County.
This fall, Willow hopes to start her newest project: using her skills to build a safe place where Ignacio Middle School students can learn about, discuss and resolve conflicts, while having a voice in the process.
Willow wants to create community circles based on restorative justice – which uses guided conflict resolution, more than discipline or punishment – to facilitate healing. The circles would also engage students in guided discussions about substance use, fighting, bullying and other youth issues before a conflict occurs.
Willow received staff approval in mid-August, and with one more step next week, student council approval, she will be able to bring new opportunities for justice to her peers.
“I want students to get used to knowing that they have a voice and to give them the option to voice their opinions on certain issues that might be happening,” Willow said. She hopes to co-facilitate community circles with teachers or guidance counselors. “I can hear what they have to say before the issue becomes super huge,” she said.
Community circles provide an open, welcoming place to build relationships between students and teachers, and when a wrongdoing occurs, those existing relationships help participants repair harm, said Tom Cavanagh, Colorado State University professor and president of Restorative Justice Education, a nonprofit.
Durango School District 9-R has used restorative justice to build supportive school climates for all students, especially students of color, students who identify as LGBTQ, and students who are traditionally disciplined at higher rates than other students, said Dillon Walls, a restorative justice coordinator at La Plata Youth Services who helped connect Willow to restorative justice resources.
Chris deKay, Ignacio Middle School principal, gave Willow his permission to start working on the project and wants to make it a grassroots effort from the student body.
“I want her to sell the idea to student council,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to be a hard sell because we already do many of those things.”
Ignacio Middle School currently provides peer mediation opportunities and Sources of Strength programming, a suicide prevention and youth resiliency program. DeKay’s strategy is to fit the community circle format into existing efforts to promote meaningful discussions with students, during time periods when teachers are already working with students around social-emotional learning.
For Willow, the school administration’s approval was an exciting step forward.
“I was like, ‘Yes, I get to do things that I’m certified in, and I get to bring my idea to the school,’” she said.
In January, Willow completed a professional “Train the Trainer” certificate program – a middle school student in a room full of administrators and professionals. CSU teachers, social workers and others earn the same internationally recognized certificate, said Cavanagh, who facilitates the program.
“I think that she would be very capable of co-facilitating with teachers, people in counseling and social workers in schools,” he said.
It was the first of many trainings, presentations, conferences and challenges this year that have helped Willow prepare to launch a restorative justice project.
In April, she won the Colorado Medical Society Education Foundation Award at the state science fair in Fort Collins. Her project, “Effective Communication to Adolescents about Vaping,” ignited her interest in creating a safe place where her peers could talk about issues, like underage substance use.
“A lot of students don’t really speak about their problems,” she said.
With vaping, she said she knows students who do it but don’t talk about it, and other students who disagree with it but don’t say anything.
“I just want to make sure everybody’s heard in that area,” she said.
In June, she went to The Montana Institute conference on building resilient communities in Big Sky, Montana, and the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice conference in Denver. Both times, she received scholarships to attend and support from staff at La Plata Youth Services or San Juan Basin Public Health.
In two weeks, she’ll be back in Denver to exhibit her science fair project to medical professionals and to receive recognition at the 2019 Annual Meeting, Presidential Celebration and Gala for the Colorado Medical Society.
“It’s all been very challenging. ... Being younger than everybody else has really put you at a disadvantage because you aren’t in that group,” she said. “You have to go up and ask permission to be there.”
Navigating the adult bureaucracy, politics and approvals has been frustrating and, at times, disheartening for Willow, said Gina Schulz, Willow’s mother and board chairwoman of ELHI Community Center in Ignacio.
Willow was nervous even after deKay’s approval; she knew the program might not happen the way she was hoping, she said. But if she felt discouraged, she got her motivation by talking to her parents and mentors and asking them if her ideas would actually help.
Whether it’s in the eyes of a CSU professor, a restorative justice specialist, her principal or her mother, one thing is clear: Willow has a growing reputation as a leader.
“She just has a really positive view and wants to make some real positive changes in her community. I think that’s really admirable and impressive,” Walls said.