Elder Circle helps troubled students at Fond du Lac School


Instead of standing before a panel of administrators, troublemakers and truants at the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School join a traditional circle of elders, where voices are heard and lessons are stressed.

The elder circle at the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe School, in its third year, has helped raise attendance rates and lower bullying incidents, school staff members say.

“The kids respect the fact that the school is doing this,” said Mel Buckholtz, behavior management facilitator at the school. “They understand the circle.”

A need to improve behavior and meet federally mandated No Child Left Behind attendance rates led the school to try the traditional Anishinaabe way of elders guiding the young down “the good path.”

Six elders were recruited, and each went through training on restorative justice and elder circles, funded by an Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Grant. In 2 1/2 years, the circle has met with students between 120 and 140 times, some more than once.

The elders are uniquely prepared to deal with troubled students and offer them solutions to help make better choices, they say.

“We’ve all had incidents in our lives (to draw upon) and experiences to bring forth,” said Patti Goward, a member of the circle. “We’ve raised children and grandchildren.”

Students in grades 7 through 12 are brought to the circle for fights,

truancy, alcohol and drug violations and other conflicts. Depending on

which Anishinaabe core values have been compromised, discipline might

involve doing things that help the community or those they hurt.

Students write apology letters and research papers, do community

service and sign compacts, along with punishments set forth by the

school’s handbook. Core values include honoring the creator, elders,

plants, animals and women and showing kindness, courage and moderation

in thought, words and deeds.

“If we don’t teach them our values to follow the right path, they’ll go the wrong way,” said circle member MaryAnn Blacketter.

Parents are encouraged to join the circle to help bring the lessons

home. The circle starts with the practice of smudging, in which burning

sage is presented to each person for purification. Blacketter said it’s

a practice that also calms angry students. An eagle feather with a

beaded handle is passed to each who wishes to speak during the

discussion. Students aren’t required to speak during the circle, which

can be emotional, members say. The group spares students judgment,

Buckholtz said, focusing on where a student lacks balance and how to

correct that.

If students have problems getting to school, the circle has given out alarm clocks and calendars.

While more serious gang activity at the school leads to expulsion with

no visit to the circle, some gang members have come before them. They

aren’t allowed to wear gang colors or show gang signs in school without

repercussions, Blacketter said, and the circle is adamant about those


“It’s like, ‘Which family do you want to belong to? … If you want to

belong to a gang family, I feel bad for you, but goodbye,’” Blacketter


Since the inception of the circle, the elders, who often go into

classrooms to tell stories and spend time with students, have noticed

hallways filled more with harmony than disruption. In the first year,

they saw many students come before the circle repeatedly. That has

lessened, members say.

“There is an awareness … you see changes,” Buckholtz said. “Kids are

being more respectful … trying to live life the right way.”

While the approach to helping students is unique, the issues the group sees are not, Blacketter said.

“All kids want to know where the edge is,” she said. “They want to know

we’re here so they don’t go over the edge, but they’re going to push us

as far as they can go.”