Tag Archives: Restorative Justice Practices

The “No Trespassing” Sign

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.

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Why Would An Offender Want To Conference?

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.

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Why Would A Victim Want To Try A Circle or Conference Process?

After being part of a tense or hurtful situation, why would anyone want to sit across from the person that hurt them?

Mainly, people need to know why things happened the way they did?

Just the power to ask questions that allow students to understand or at least know what was in the other persons mind is powerful.  Students want to be seen as human beings.  They also want to express how the actions of a person have affected their lives and the lives of the people around them.  The hurt can be material, physical, time wasted, loss of class time or privilege.  No matter how we categorize the hurt, it is just that, something unpleasant that they are interrupting their life to work through and was no fault of their own.  So, why wouldn’t they want to have that conversation if the setting was safe and they had support people surrounding them?

Restorative Justice Conferencing allows a person the perfect safe setting to express affect while being supported by people close to them.  They are encouraged to exchange the difficulties and impact the action has had on their and others lives.  This exchange is cathartic and empowers the victim to regain a feeling of wholeness again.  Normally students feel autonomous and free to learn and engage their fellow students with openness.  When they are involved in an incident they did not provoke or initiate that autonomy is robbed from them and they begin to view school in a different light.  It might take the shape of fear, over cautiousness, withdraw, depression, drop in grades, etc.

Conferencing addresses this loss of autonomy head-on by asking the questions the victim needs to ask.  Clarifying the confusion and having a part in deciding the outcome of the discipline or actions the offender will take to best heal the situation reinstates the empowerment and freedom to determine one’s own actions.  This is a valuable result that surveyed victim’s say they need.

Safety and support open the door for victims to consider participation.  Conferencing ensures both are accommodated.  Knowing these provisions are in place, victims are fully willing to engage and use the process.

Many people challenge the statement of “healing” the harm.  They infer that true healing is impossible.  To whatever degree the victim can find peace through a process is considered healing.  If we hang our hats on that people can never return to that place they were before the incident and do nothing, we will find that we are leaving them in even a deeper hole.  The idea is to not “re-victimize” but to move beyond the state where the victim was found; healing is moving away from that hurt in a positive direction.  Indeed a complete return to the former self might be impossible, but only as much as it is impossible for all programs and practices to render a person to their exact previous condition.  Our conferencing program goes to all ends to positively accommodate the victim, offender and community as a place for healing.  This global outreach is the genius of the process and is at your disposal.  Consider conferencing for your students with the next breach of the code of conduct.

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Restorative Justice Circle Processes

Those who are new to Restorative Justice consider it to be one process in itself.  In truth, there are many practices under the RJ umbrella.  The question is what fits the situation best?

The WCS program uses two main processes, conferencing and the circle process.  In the traditional setting of an offender, a victim and support participants, the conference is the lead process. When the conflict is convoluted and has a large number of potentially affected people within the school community, we often use the circle process.  Each process is effective in either situation, but for the larger the group, the circle has proven to work best.  There are components of the circle process that make it work better in a large group setting.

Considering a large group in conflict, pre-meetings do not tend to capture all the nuances of the situation and leave the door open to new developments that can be potentially harmful to the healing nature of Restorative Justice Conferencing. The circle process lends itself to a deeper identity with the community which is created within the setting and through story telling.  It demands respect based on the introduction and the way that the interaction is structured.  It is more suited for the random emergence of information that is volatile or coercive.  Given that each person in the setting has a direct effect on the others in the group, disrespectful intentions and flagrant comments tend to be reduced to a dialog that is focused on the current situation and commands ownership without excuses.  Certainly there are reasons for why one acts out in a certain way, but regardless of the reasons, it is agreed upon that we are looking to move towards a constructive and peaceful future that is grounded in the way we are to interact with each other as a community.  No person’s position is viewed as exclusively right or wrong.  It is here where we begin to listen and see how others where affected and how the situation has brought us all together as a group to respond to the problem.

The circle process does not necessarily push for an agreement or a resolution.  It can be a sharing of ideas.  It might confirm that process and procedures need to be addressed.  It could simply be a means to make all parties aware that there are people who care and this is the process to share concerns and needs.   Most circles conducted at WCS are geared to finding an agreement. We want an agreement that will allow students to reintegrate into the school community and move past old problems, create solutions and discover a better means to address new problems with new techniques and better forms of communication. 

Another interesting dynamic to a circle is the participants that you don’t typically find in conferences.  We frequently ask administrators, teachers and counselors to attend our circle. They can speak to specifics of the situation and how it has affected them.  We might even have a public safety officer in the room when the situation may seem to have a volatile element.  There may be cause to have someone from the neighboring community in the circle.  We may invite witnesses that have perspectives for both sides of the issue in attendance to create an idea as to how the group needs to approach the matter at hand.

Group size was mentioned at the beginning of this article and it makes sense to be more specific.  If the situation calls for ten or more participants, the circle is an effective tool to manage such a large group.  Its potential could reach out to the entire student body.  Now time frames and logistics are indeed concerns and all variables would need to be carefully planned out, but none of these scenarios is beyond the potency of healing offered by the circle process.  In following weeks, we will develop the subject of circle processes so you may become more familiar with the process when it is suggested as the best choice to heal the situation in your school.

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Communication and Problem Solving Skills from the Conferencing Process

Since students have been in school they have been taught to seek an adult to work out problems.  As they grow, they tend to observe adults and model their methods.  If they see results (the results they are looking for) they will likely adopt a behavior and call it their own. This presents many problems as it does benefits.   What works in the home is not necessarily democratic enough when in school.  In fact, it may have no components for fairness or the golden rule. 

The first taught lessons tend to be the lessons of listening.  Teachers teach the littlest of students that they must “listen” to learn and understand what is being said and what is required.  Active listening is the hallmark of many of the social sciences and is the bedrock to communication.   If we don’t hear what others are saying, we likely will not answer the question or provide the desired results.  

Technology has communication running at a very high speed.  In order to absorb this communication many times it is “cropped” or winnowed to the chunks that were heard and then a reply is submitted based on the little that was netted from the exchange.  Many times we answer well before the complete thought is relayed or developed.  This lends itself to a corrupted message.

This speed also impedes our ability to transfer information.  With the same effort to hear and respond, we tend to transfer at such a high rate that our words and ideas may not come together to form the desired message.  We know what we want deep in the recesses of our minds, but that doesn’t mean it has been effectively communicated.  When I talk to my brothers, we share many of the same ideas.  In fact, we know each other so well, that we many times finish each other’s thoughts or sentences.  This is not necessarily good.   Sometimes we are not on the same page or in the same state of mind and it leads to problems.

So, taking a snap shot of our “learning how” to communicate as we advance through school, we find that we digress to the mode that seems to suit us best, whether it is of conventional or improvised methods.  Everyone is subject to this circumstance and some are better at communicating than others; while some really cannot claim to communicate at all.  It would seem that the more primitive our means of communication (physical vs. verbal), the more likely misunderstanding and disagreements result.  Worse yet, when those who have not found favorable results in the exchange of ideas, wants and needs, are left to work out a potential problem, they are not likely to devote the time needed to reach an agreement, not realizing the time it may take to achieve the desired outcome.

That said, conferencing opens a door to the timing, questions, respectful exchange, equal time, open architecture and the listening required for a beneficial conversation with powerful results.  The setting allows the time needed for the development of ideas, the exploration of feeling, affect and deeper needs that open the door for negotiation and problem solving.  It may be the one of the few times a student sees a process that addresses everyone’s concern and accommodation.  This is powerful and it is a healthy benefit of the conferencing process.

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