The Independent: South Kingstown Broad Rock Middle School highlights benefits of nonviolence education

For many students, Broad Rock Middle School in South Kingstown is a fun and inclusive place. They owe that environment in part to the nonviolence education they receive, one based on the principles and lessons of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I love coming to school,” student Carlie Robinson said in front of her classroom Jan. 18, two days after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as U.S. Rep. James Langevin made a visit to the school.

Robinson said after some difficult times in elementary school, “I feel so much more comfortable” this year at Broad Rock Middle School.

“Everyone is kind,” she said.

The Kingian nonviolence work was first brought to the South Kingstown School District by Robin Wildman, a fifth-grade teacher, in 2001. At the time, the practice was never used in a teaching curriculum, but after working with Bernard Lafayette Jr., a civil rights activist who worked alongside King, Wildman thought it would be useful to children. Years later, she said, the results have been impressive.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is special at Broad Rock Middle School. Last week marked the third consecutive year the school has been practicing the six principles of nonviolence that follow peacefulness, kindness and justice. The school dedicates each month to one of the principles so that all students are aware of the teachings.

The majority of the school’s teachers have received the 20-hour nonviolence training from Wildman.

“We take these steps and principles to solve conflict very seriously here at Broad Rock because we have an alternative to lashing out in anger, which I think is very unusual in a school,” Wildman said. “We are able to teach nonviolence education but connect it to our curriculum.”

Wildman said she and the other teachers have learned to incorporate the major principles into their lessons. With nonviolence teachings and strategies permeating through the middle school halls, Principal Kathy Egan said students have begun to “speak the same language” when it comes to recognizing bullying or unacceptable behavior.

“The decline in bullying incidents has been dramatic,” said Jennifer Enck, assistant principal.

Through Kingian nonviolence, students communicate to teachers and have learned to better arrive at conflict resolution, the administrators said. They have also seen a decline in in-school suspensions.

On Jan. 18, students sat in a large circle at the front of Wildman’s fifth-grade classroom and talked about the need for peace and love.

“We want to show that nonviolence is the way of life,” said Kaitlyn Swint, one of Wildman’s students.

Students said they understand conflicts are natural and healthy, but must remain at a normal level and not escalate.

“Our goal is to have a peaceful community, not just here but all over the nation and maybe all over the world,” student Merit Zinn said.

Wildman said her students celebrate differences.

“We’re all different in our own ways and we should celebrate that,” Langevin said.

As the morning continued, about half of the students took off for lunch while the other half stayed back to ask Langevin questions and to continue to tell him more about their nonviolence education.

Langevin was asked by one of the fifth-grade students if he ever finds himself in arguments at work. The congressman said he and his colleagues prefer to call them debates, although he acknowledged they sometimes escalate.

“We try to keep it healthy and civilized,” he said. “It can be very frustrating sometimes, especially when you’re fighting for something you really believe in and a problem you really want to solve. How do we resolve it? I try to always take the high road – like [former First Lady] Michelle Obama said, ‘When they go low, we go high.’

“I believe that over time, the right thing always happens,” Langevin continued.

After 16 years of using nonviolence methods and principles in her teaching, Wildman said the model has helped with absenteeism and has improved the environment in the school.

“I have seen a change in how I teach,” she said. “Spending the beginning part of the year teaching the nonviolence elements helps later in the year with not having to spend so much time penalizing students for misbehaving. It makes teacher’s lives easier.”

Egan said it has also helped the administrators with how they deal with discipline and how they communicate with each other.

To continue the work, the school has begun parent workshops on nonviolence to try and grow the program. Egan said parents hear their students speak about the program at home and it would help its effectiveness if parents were aware of the principles and teachings behind it.