Some Wake parents want end to school ‘group therapy,’ where students discuss feelings

Some parents are demanding that the Wake County school system end a program in which students meet regularly in circles to talk with their classmates and teachers about their feelings, hopes, dreams and concerns.

Wake school officials say the use of “Community Circles” is helping to build a sense of community in schools and empowers students to take responsibility and resolve conflicts.

But a group called Parents For the Protection of Students sent a letter Thursday to the school district demanding that Circle Time be discontinued at Apex Middle School and at other Wake schools.

In the letter, the group says the circles are putting students at risk of having their privacy being breached when they discuss sensitive personal matters. In addition to demanding the end to the program, the group says it wants an outside investigation into how it started and was approved in Wake.

“Group therapy, like other forms of traditional psychological treatment and counseling, can bring great benefit to many people,” Tyler Brooks, an attorney for the group, said in the letter. “But, it is not within the purview of a school to conduct such treatment during the school day, without parental consent, and outside of the supervision of duly-trained and licensed psychological and counseling professionals.”

The group says it’s a grassroots organization of Wake County parents and others, including parents at Apex Middle. The News & Observer requested to talk to an Apex Middle parent in the group but was directed to speak with the attorney.

The school system said Friday it has no intention of discontinuing the circles. School officials credit the program with building relationships that have helped to reduce out-of-school suspensions and discipline issues and to improve student attendance.

“It’s all about building relationships where we’re helping students and staff connect with one another,” Marrius Pettiford, Wake’s senior director of counseling and student services, said in an interview Friday. “When you build those relationships, it reduces the possibility of conflict.”

Pettiford said it’s wrong to say that the circles are a therapy session. He said it’s emphasized during the training, particularly to teachers and administrators, that it’s not meant to be therapeutic time.

“Just because you’re doing this circle keeper training, it doesn’t mean you’re a mental-health professional,” Pettiford said.

Community Circles praised

Pettiford said the circles started after discussions with experts in restorative justice practices, which are designed to reduce the use of out-of-school suspensions. He said several hundred Wake school employees, including psychologists, counselors, administrators and teachers, have been trained in how to lead circles.

The circles are now used throughout Wake, more extensively in high schools but also in some elementary and middle schools, according to Pettiford.

The decision to spend school time on the circles is being questioned by critics.

“We are definitely curious as to why these group therapy sessions should take time away from instruction in traditional topics like mathematics, science, literature, foreign languages, history, art, and music,” Brooks says in the letter.

But Pettiford said there’s a direct connection between improving the social-emotional learning skills of students and their academic performance.

”It’s making sure that students have all the skill sets they need to make good decisions so they feel connected to the learning,” Pettiford said. “From that we know they’ll do better if they’re connected to the learning.”

In a 2017 school district video, Logan Woodall, who was a 6th-grade student at Centennial Campus Middle School at the time, said that the circles calm down students who’ve had a rough morning. She said it’s also allowed her to trust her classmates more.

“I just learn something new about every person in the class every day and it does help me understand them in the way they act and think,” Logan said.

Pettiford said the students are led into discussions of things such as what’s their favorite animal and what states have they lived in. He said it helps build connections among the students.

Students talk about being bullied

But Brooks said the discussions get much deeper. He points to material provided by Apex Middle showing that their Circle Time will have students discuss things such as what it feels like to be bullied, high and low points in their past week and experiences of being hurt and angry.

“We can also only imagine the emotional damage that could result if a student shared a private fact about herself or family in “the Circle” (e.g., questions of sexuality or a troubled home life)— having been led to believe that the disclosure was safe and protected — only to then see that same information become fodder for middle school gossip,” Brooks said in the letter.

“This detracts from, rather than enhances, the ability of students to learn.”

Pettiford said that the circle leaders are trained to redirect the discussion away from sensitive personal topics. He also said circle leaders tell students not to share deep personal stories because they can’t ensure complete confidentiality.

Students also aren’t required to attend the circles or to speak at them, Pettiford said. But when the alternative is going to the principal’s office, Brooks said skipping isn’t an option for some students.

Brooks said the circle time could pose similar privacy concerns similar to when a Heritage High School teacher asked students to answer personal questions such as their sexuality, religion and family income.

As a result of the Heritage incident, the teacher was suspended without pay for five days and district leaders sent an email to all teachers reminding them to respect the privacy rights of their students.

Brooks said it’s disappointing that Wake won’t stop the use of the circles. He said the group is now considering its legal options.

“They don’t have an appreciation of the harm that it has caused or could cause,” Brooks said in an interview Friday. “They go forward with this recklessness at their own peril.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.