NPHS first in state to offer Kingian Nonviolence course

NPHS first in state to offer Kingian Nonviolence course

North Providence High School English teachers Aimee and Jason Ryan, outside the school’s new Center for Peace and Nonviolence. (Breeze photo by Nicole Dotzenrod)

NORTH PROVIDENCE – A pair of North Providence teachers hope to spark a culture shift in the district’s schools by implementing Kingian Nonviolence training for teachers and students, empowering them to identify and de-escalate conflict.

Kingian Nonviolence is a philosophy of conflict resolution based on the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement. It encourages people to focus on uncovering the similarities and differences between them, reminding us that conflict is born out of our difference and that, in the end, we are more alike than we are different.

North Providence High School is the first high school in the state to implement Kingian Nonviolence into its curriculum, thanks to husband and wife English teachers Jason and Aimee Ryan.

“There was a need for some type of culture shift in our school,” Aimee said, especially in dealing with student conflict and high suspension rates.

After a trip to Alabama where they were inspired with more knowledge of King’s philosophy and the movement he championed, they reached out to then-Principal Joseph Goho with hopes of bringing Kingian Nonviolence training to NPHS.

“He happened to be in a meeting about how to reduce the suspension rate. He immediately approved of the idea,” Jason said. “Part of what goes unspoken, and ties admins’ hands, is that they have a difficult time being able to respond to infractions if they can only suspend kids 10 days a year. Everyone was at an impasse … then we learned about Chicago.”

A Chicago charter school averaged 800 suspensions per year, he said. In five to six years after implementing Kingian Nonviolence training, that number dropped to zero.

“We were extremely motivated by that,” he said.

The Ryans were trained for two weeks at the University of Rhode Island’s summer institute on Kingian Nonviolence, working alongside social workers, military veterans, psychologists and a variety of others during the 120-hour course.

Next, they shared their knowledge with dozens of NPHS teachers.

When groups of students came to them, feeling defeated after another school shooting made headlines last year, they decided to offer the training to them as well.

“They came to us feeling panic and defeat. They wanted to do something, anything, to help the world and help the school,” Aimee said. “The kids felt distressed and hopeless, and wanted to improve their school culture in general.”

They selected a group of 30 students for the initial training, based on leadership potential.

Interest in the training quickly grew, to the point where the Ryans were ready to introduce it as a classroom course available to take at NPHS. This semester, 15 students are enrolled.

“More kids trained means more kids in the hallway with this knowledge. Once you have that solid foundation, it becomes easier to interrupt nonsense, keep peace and help to reconcile or cut off conflict,” said Jason. “It’s a numbers game.”

They trained more than 100 people in a year, or about 10 percent of the school population.

“In the Chicago school where suspensions were eliminated, one in four students were trained. We’re at one in 10, only a few years in,” he said.

The Ryans also introduced a new Center for Peace and Nonviolence at NPHS, where they help mediate issues between students.

The first pair of students in conflict who used the mediation service went from “ready to fight to shaking hands,” Jason said. A student believed another student was making fun of her clothing. As it turns out, the girl was staring because she liked the other student’s style.

Assumptions and misinformation are often the root of conflict among students, Aimee said. After mediation, students realize that they’re more alike than different. “We have much more in common than we think.”

That’s the root of Kingian Nonviolence training, Jason said.

“We gather information, find out the story, get to the root cause and understand shared humanity and shared experience,” he said. “We want to remind kids how much they do have in common.”

Beyond lowering suspension rates, Jason said he hopes equipping students with the knowledge of Kingian Nonviolence will help make for safer hallways, allowing kids to focus on what is important.

The Ryans say they would like to see Kingian Nonviolence implemented in every elementary, secondary and higher education institution.

“No other generation of students in recent history have had the opportunity to have conversations like this … to have a class that looks at the systematic nature of nonviolence, and productive and meaningful ways to address conflict,” Jason said.