Looking across the table I could see the sign deep within the students eyes that said, “No Trespassing”. Students have a nonverbal way about themselves. Body language precedes the verbal in most my intake sessions. By the time a student is sitting across from me, they have already been over the incident with a teacher, administrators, parents, police, parole officers, etc. To land in my chair, they have admitted to their part in the offence and have volunteered for a conference. My intake is to familiarize the student with the process and use my baloney detection kit to confirm that we have a genuine participant or someone who has a potential to re-victimize the other student.
First time offenders and “zero tolerance” entanglements conference with huge success. Students that have been involved in a cycle of disciplinary problems since elementary tend to display signs of “No Trespassing”. It means, leave me alone, I’ve got it figured out, you can’t help me, whatever, I don’t want to be in school, you are just like my parents, drop dead, you get the picture. So how does one get trespass rights?
Conferencing is voluntary. Students are offered the process with few prerequisites and if the student is willing to use the process, they have already committed to some trespass rights. The key is how we proceed through the intake. Hard nosing tends to quash the spark, but truth is allowed. The approach is everything. Interest in something other than the incident can go a long way in moving beyond the “no”. Declaration that the process is not deciding who is good or bad, but actions are good or bad will gain you further access, but the clincher if giving the student the empowerment in the option to choose the outcome. They can either actively work to heal the harm or opt-out and work out the discipline according to the code of conduct.
Of course some students are whipped around by their uncertainty like grass in the wind. They are cautious as to not be duped or find it again is an attempt to usurp their independence. Understanding this, we lose a few to anarchy or some misplaced ideal, but largely, conferencing can slip by the “no trespassing” signs in students by giving them the empowerment they need to be accountable. Many times a discussion with support people can lend itself to reaching beyond defenses.
When administrators make the offer of the conferencing option, they should rest easy with students that may seem borderline in accepting their part in the offence; they can brief me before the student intake where I can apply the proper screening to make sure we have a legitimate participant. Even battle hardened and establishment wary students can find empowerment and the powerful effects conferencing can have on problem solving. We must not let the sign deter us at face value.
It is an imposing option to sit in front of the person in which you have hurt. Many would gladly choose to deal with the Assistant Principal knowing they would not have to look into the eyes of the person they have wronged and then explain what it was that was going through their heads when the acted against them. So why choose that very road?
Talking with offenders usually starts with their justification and excuses as to why someone would be so uncaring to others who share the same rights and freedoms as they do. Given a few days from the action, they tend to have a diminished view of why or even a sharp image of the exact intended purpose of their actions. While discussing the incident, a slow walk down the path of escalation clearly identifies other choices that would have brought about better results. At this juncture, if willing to accept their part in the incident, they are open to processes that may afford them an opportunity to be seen as a student and not an offender. In fact, when asked “Is offender what you want to be recognized as by your fellow students?”
The answer is clearly “No!”
Being recognized as bad has little value to most offenders. The fact is they gave this dynamic of their actions little consideration. In an effort to change a situation or solve a problem, they selected one of the poorer choices. No matter how poor the decision, they did not intend to find themselves described by the community as “bad”. So, when conferencing is explained as a means to be seen as a human and work collectively to heal the harm, they are motivated to chose the conference even knowing that there might be uncomfortable moments ahead.
There is also a draw to having a say as to the punishment or steps needed to help heal the matter. The offender’s find that their participation in a conference gives them a large role in deciding what their obligations will be. If allowed the opportunity to provide supported restitution, behavior and interaction changes to heal the offence, they are most often to volunteer for this option.
The code of conduct punishment is also a concern for offenders. A student serving a suspension with multiple days off inevitably impacts grades and valuable student interaction. The conferencing process allows students to waive suspension and code of conduct discipline when they actively engage in solving the problem by entering into an agreement that they create with the other party. This also is a strong reason in which the offender chooses the process.
There is also the matter of restoring self image. This can be a strong motivator. Knowing that you are labeled an offender, when it was not your intent, leaves many students at a loss as to how to regain their self image. Conferencing and its support elements allow students to regain their self image in accomplishing a meaningful end of the situation. When victims are willing to openly confirm that the person responsible for their problem has made meaningful amends, the student community also accepts that decision. This component of conferencing paves the way for offenders to restore their self image and reduce the desire to engage in the prior behavior.
So, being seen as a human being, having an expanded roll in the outcome of their actions, waiving code of conduct punishment (replacing it with collaborative alternative) and restoring self image are the upstream benefits and explain why offenders choose the conferencing option.