by Julia Steiny
The mom and her 15-year-old son are so palpably nervous you can almost see anxiety ions in the air. He’s committed a seriously foolish act. He and Mom want to cooperate with a restorative conference as an alternative to his getting arrested.
He’s not a bad kid, but like so many kids these days — and so many adults as well — the rules don’t really apply to him. While immature and a goofball, his antics can be funny, some of the time. But the joking can also be irritating, disruptive and obnoxious. This time Goofball crossed a line, a personal violation, that freaked a teacher out to the point where she considered pressing charges — and had every right to do so. But his behavior was not malicious.
Here’s the dilemma: no one, not even this furious teacher, wants kids to get arrested, never mind go to jail, unless they seem dangerous or incorrigible. This kid is plenty punished by poverty, fatherlessness, urban blight and more. And everyone knows getting a kid involved with the justice system usually makes their lives worse, further dimming their future prospects. Many kids respond to the clenched fist of the law by becoming even harder and more oppositional themselves.
But equally horrible is just letting the matter go. Even suspensions are just a vacation on the couch with TV. Stern warnings are a joke. So kids get the message that the behavior is not all that bad — which is exactly how they get to feeling they’re above the rules. So school staff, police, even parents struggling with out-of-control kids have two bad options: put them in the system or let them go. Wreck their lives one way; wreck them another.
Conferencing offers a third option. First developed and institutionalized in New Zealand through their 1989 Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, the technique spread like crazy internationally. But as the country with by far the largest prison population in the world, by rate and by absolute numbers, the U.S. has been slow to embrace the obvious:
Punishing Goofball would never get to the root of the misbehavior. How’d he’d get the idea he could violate personal boundaries? Actually, the moment he was confronted, he admitted he knew such behavior was not okay. Only offenders who take responsibility for what they’ve done are eligible to go to conference.
A trained, neutral facilitator does some preliminary work to get all the affected parties in the room. This case’s facilitator points out that everyone in the room needs to live in the same community together, sharing school hallways. So what happened? What would make it right, and how can we be sure we’re good with one another by the end? Victims, who are completely sidelined by the traditional justice system, are invited to speak first. In this case, the teacher victim is so mortified by what happened, she can share only a few details. But her feelings speak volumes. The mom and kid look mortified to hear it. The kid keeps trying to apologize, but no, it’s not his turn to speak.
Mom and others express how they felt about the incident. Then, when the attention does turn his way, per usual, Goofball tries to lighten the moment with a smirky smile and a lame joke. It could not have fallen flatter. The somber silence drags on a few tortuous moments.
That’s when he got the look on his face. The big ah-ha. He’s seen himself through the eyes of those he’s affected. It’s not pretty and it’s certainly not funny. He flushes with shame. Criminologist John Braithwaite passionately argues that no one develops a conscience without being open to the experience of shame, when they’ve hurt or harmed someone else.
Satisfied that he Gets It, the conference transitions to considering how he can make restitution and get a clean slate.
The coolest aspect of a conference is not gathering to unpeel the onion-like layers of the incident, though that’s critical. It’s not that look on the offender’s face, however satisfying. The coolest thing is watching participants work with the kid to come up with a restitution plan whose completion will give him every hope of returning to his community with a clean slate and forgiven. Ironically, these painful conversations manage to bring everyone involved closer to one another. Conference participants have the opportunity to be clear with each other about what helps them feel safe and valued together. Those he’s heard the rules a million times, the offender has never had to think about them with earnest faces staring into his, hoping he’ll cut the crap and re-join the community.
One participant, a school staffer, had expressed frustration to the point of giving up on this pain in the butt. After the mom and kid left, she looked up at the rest of us, eyebrows raised. “That was impressive. I don’t think we’ll see that behavior much in future. After everything we’ve tried, this looks really promising.”
And so it is.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.