A middle schooler, through vandalism at his school, created a giant mess and $1,500 in repair costs. We were eager to get all parties together, including parents and janitorial staff in a restorative circle. The group needed to come up with a way for the students to accept responsibility and make it right. There were tears, there was a lot of “I wish I never did this. If I could go back in time I wouldn’t do it again.” There were sincere apologies and, even better, a collaborative plan made that involved some financial restitution and some work that will be done in tandem with the custodial staff. The staff affected actually got to share how it affected them both personally and professionally. The turning point in this conversation happened when the student actually heard the dean’s frustration. Knowing that she was up until midnight worrying about the incident helped him see the humanity in her. Having truly been heard, her frustration turned into constructive ideas to help the student keep himself out of trouble. The group turned their annoyance and anger toward the students into support and rallied around them to develop supportive agreements to ensure the harm would be addressed and not repeated. He’ll be working with that custodian until winter break, every day, to help address the harm he caused. If he doesn’t, he will face financial restitution. This was the idea generated by his family, the custodial staff, and the dean – not a punishment handed down from someone not connected to the problem. There was more accountability in that hour and a half than there would be in years following expulsion. Looking the people in the eyes who you harmed, truly hearing them, asking forgiveness and being given the gift to be able to make it right is what accountability looks like.
Every day in our work we see the power of the circle—a place where it is safe for people to talk through their problems with each other and not rely on any sort of assumptions. Just the other day, I was asked to lead a student and a teacher in a restorative circle. The student had said a few things to the teacher that were hurtful and unkind and the teacher had returned the sentiment. They both knew (wisely) that a punishment wouldn’t address the harm that was done. In talking together, they both realized that their assumptions were wrong. The teacher assumed that the student had it out for her and was trying to upset her. In fact, he was frustrated by the test he was taking and lost control. The student assumed that the teacher didn’t care if he failed the test and that she liked to criticize him. He, too, was wrong in his assumptions. She had known the student for years and knew how capable and bright he was. Seeing him get frustrated and stop trying triggered her to also lose control. Coming to these new understandings, paved the way for the student and teachers to think through a few interventions to help make sure this sort of thing didn’t happen again. They artfully created a plan that addressed underlying needs and ways to proactively communicate that showed they both were willing to do what it took to learn from the incident and prevent it from happening again.
A school called us, unsure of what to do about a particularly challenging situation. One student had been using racial slurs toward another for a number of years. The school had tried punitive interventions and it hadn’t helped. I said that we needed to get the students and their parents together. They told me that it was a bad idea and inadvisable. I asked them to try and was given the green light to invite both parents. The parents of the student who used the slurs told me that she had a short temper and might fly off the handle if provoked. I explained that the purpose was not for either “side” to provoke one another but to determine a way to move forward. She hesitated but eventually decided it was a good idea to attend the conference. The teacher told me that even thinking about coming to the conference “made her feel like throwing up” but she knew that it needed to be addressed. The parent of the student who had been harmed was the only participant who matched my enthusiasm for coming together. “Yes! I have been asking for this for so long! When is it?” she asked. On the day of the conference we gathered in a science lab and each took turns talking about our perspectives. The turning point in this discussion took place when the student who had used the slurs heard the mother of his classmate break down in tears. “Do you know what it’s like to send your child to a place where you know they are going to be torn down every day?” His whole body language changed and he was no longer interested in passing the blame. He respectfully interrupted her and voluntarily said, “This has got to change. I really am sorry.” The conversation got more and more productive and shifted to how to right this wrong. We learned that these two students were constantly at odds but had no reliable mechanism to talk through their disagreements. I volunteered to come teach them how to use a conflict resolution method we teach called STEP. We added that to our agreement, as well as the need for some historical education about racial slurs and why they are so powerful. As the conference drew to a close we now had an agreement form that carved out ways to address needed skills, a promise to not use the hurtful language again, and newfound understanding of each other’s perspectives. When I explained that the conference was over and that the restorative tradition is to ‘break bread’ together before returning to the classroom community, the boys lept toward the snacks together and voluntarily sat together laughing and snarfing oranges and granola bars happily. I wondered, “why was everyone so afraid to talk about this in the first place?”
Beautiful and powerful are the two words I must use to describe this restorative circle. This circle was held between a teacher and a student, requested by the teacher because they felt that there was a harm done and it needed to be restored. In her classroom, they were at a point where she had told a student to “shut up” in front of the whole class. After the teacher apologized to the student in front of the class the teacher still felt she needed to have a restorative circle with the student.
To restore the harm that was done, the teacher had to tell the student what thoughts and feelings she was having when she told the student to “shut up.” The teacher shared and the student listened. When it was the student’s turn to speak they said, “I understand and see your point of view.” The student went on and on stating why they were acting the way they were acting when the teacher told them to shut up. When it was the teacher’s turn to speak again she said she understood and saw the student’s point of view as well. After discussing the harm that was done between them they began to brainstorm ideas on how to prevent this from happening again. They began to point out their different needs so that they could accomplish their common goals of having a peaceful environment for the classroom.
In an elementary classroom where theft had occurred, one of our facilitators came in to lead a responsive circle. She knew the class and had a good relationship with the students. Because they trusted her, this circle was very productive. She asked the students to clarify what stealing is and asked the students and the teacher to talk about the harm that came from the theft that had occurred. The students explained their frustration and sadness. The teacher shared her feelings about how stuck she felt. You see, many of the objects that had disappeared were donated to the class from the teacher’s own children. They wanted to share these learning materials and the teacher was glad to let them. As they started to disappear, it began to feel like betrayal and she was wondering if she should stop allowing them to share their belongings in this generous ways. They also talked about what it would feel like to have made a mistake and how the class could respond if someone did come forward. They expected it to end there. What they didn’t expect was for a student to walk to their backpack and begin producing many of those missing objects.
What the teacher did at that moment showed us that she truly understood what restorative practices are all about. She could have written him up, sent him to the office, or called home. Instead, she took him aside for a private conversation and told him how proud of him she was that he did the right thing. Because of this response he felt comfortable opening up. She learned that because he is in foster care his home life is not comfortable. He misses the warmth and community of school, so he takes objects to provide him comfort at home. Had the school elected for a zero-tolerance approach, that student would have had a new social harm to compound the existing harms that had taken place. Instead, his relationships were deepened, he learned about the harm that stealing was causing, and he and his teacher were able to work out a plan that would allow him to access the items in an appropriate and fair way. Circles are so powerful!
In a local high school, two students began arguing. In many instances, those students would be “disciplined” which means any variation on being separated, sent out, written up, etc. Instead, our facilitator saw that there was something important that needed to be addressed between them. She took them into the hall and the truth quickly came out. The young man had insulted the young woman and in the circle felt safe enough to own it and to apologize. The entire incident was related to their real feelings for one another and a simple miscommunication. They cared about their relationship and were grateful for the opportunity to talk it through in a format that felt honest and safe. The young woman remarked “I didn’t know I knew how to do that the right way!” The entire incident was resolved in less than 15 minutes and did not result in a fight, a viral video, a suspension, or long term “drama” which is the most likely alternative that we see far too often.
Viral Social Media Incident
We were called into a school to help process through a serious incident of hate speech that went viral and created negative impact on the school community, all of those who were involved, and a global online community. We strongly recommended that all parties gathered together in a restorative circle. We worked with all of the parties to prep them and ensure that a restorative circle was recommended. We knew that the person who initiated the hate speech needed to hear the pain, perspective, and insight of those who were harmed. That person needed to learn to do better next time and to try to right their wrongs. The circle was powerful and effective. The students who were harmed actually asked repeatedly for the responsible student not to be expelled and holding her accountable meant her listening to the harm and allowing them space to actually dispel myths and talk about their culture and religion. They actually decided to turn the experience into something positive and are planning a few meaningful educational opportunities for their school that they will facilitate together. There were tears, there was healing, and there was a real exchange of information and emotion. True learning and collaboration replaced all of the negative feelings and fear. As the students “broke bread” together at the end (a restorative tradition) their laughter and connection eclipsed the tension and negativity that was so powerful before the circle began.
Recently a school reached out to us to tell us that a few of their challenging students were gathered at recess. The staff person went to go intervene, assuming something negative was brewing. They were delighted to learn that the students were (entirely on their own volition) holding their own restorative circle, speaking piece and all, to help talk through a conflict!
In the days following a restorative practices training, a social worker returned to her school to find an entire class buzzing about the fight that was to take place at 3:00. She said before the training I would have thought, “The last place we should put those two boys is in the same room, but after the training, I thought, let me just give this a try.”
She led them through a restorative chat and was amazed that they opened up about the serious issues they were both going through and realized that neither wanted to fight. She chuckled at how powerful, yet simple the entire process was, and that they even voluntarily capped it off with a “dude hug.”
It’s Changed Everything
At a local school that we have provided some restorative practices training to and that has done a lot of work independently, a teacher told us, “Everything is better now. The culture of the entire school has changed.” Eager to hear it for myself, I happily overheard two interactions on my way to my meeting. A parent and the dean were calmly chatting in the hallway. So calmly, I assumed they were talking about something light. Instead, I heard “I totally agree with you. Suspending her wouldn’t help anything.” The almost casual way they conversed was impressive.
As I continued to walk I heard a teacher with a student she was talking to near the door. She was using an affective statement with a student, explaining the harm that breaking pencils did to her and to the community. Again, it was a calm conversation where people were actually exchanging ideas rather than insults. This shift in culture is what we see when everyone in the school adopts these practices.
It’s Okay to Admit When You Are Wrong
One of our facilitators was asked to lead a circle about some theft that had occurred. They spent a great deal of time processing why the theft mattered and how they could respond if the person came forward. In the course of talking, the teacher raised her voice and spoke to some of the students who were talking out of turn in a particularly harsh way. Our facilitator took this as an opportunity. “I’m actually really glad that you kind of lost your cool during that circle. It gives you the opportunity to show how we all mess up and that it’s okay to own it and apologize. This might be the way to show the students that it’s okay to come forward.” This incredible teacher did just that. She apologized to the class for losing her temper and low and behold, the student who stole the item in question came forward soon after and produced the stolen item.