Personal Reflections

Restorative Opportunities after the Election

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By Nancy Reistenberg

Nov. 16, 2016

Howard Zehr reminds us to watch for both the intended and unintended consequences of our actions.  Some unintended consequences are harmful, and but sometimes they are positive.  I have been thinking about what could possibly be a positive outcome of the increase of reported bullying and racial, sexual, religious harassment in schools in the wake of the election.  Stories of both individuals and groups of students threatening, harassing and grabbing other students certainly challenge the schools who are charged with teaching all the nation’s children.

The good news is that there are stories all over the country, where educators—teachers, educational assistants, and whole buildings with the support of the administration—are responding proactively by changing routine, and giving both staff and students time to talk. Circle outlines have been developed so that adults, who may have many feelings themselves about current events, are able to remember to say, in the middle of their circle, ”My ears and my heart are open to whatever people would like to share.”  Feelings are never wrong.”

One teacher sent me the following testimony for talking, so students can learn: “I used circle process yesterday with our fifth grade community divided into 3 groups.  We also were able then to have them follow up with journaling which they could choose to tie into their interpretive essay opinion piece.  The sharing was amazing and insightful. We were brought to tears when one student (Somali male age 10) titled his journaling, ‘I Belong Here!’”

A high school social worker reported: “All Circles at school talked about the election.  The day of the election and the day after.  I think it was pretty scary for some of our East African students.  Students had a lot of questions about the election process and where we go from here.”

Proactive talk, art, action and mindful practices can help student express their feelings so they can connect to their prefrontal cortex and learn.

But what to do when students hurt each other?  That will happen, regardless of pro-active work.  Almost all states have laws that direct public schools to respond to bullying.  Most educators and most of the general public are aware that bullying is harmful to both the person who is the target of the bullying, and also deteriorates the overall learning environment of the school.  What may not be as obvious, is that bullying behavior is also not useful to the person who bullies.  An analysis of the Minnesota Student Survey showed that many students who bully and many students who are bullied share related experiences, most of them negative.  Students involved in bullying are more likely to report that they experience physical, sexual or emotional abuse, dating violence, feel less connected to peers and are less likely to report that their teachers, family or community care about them. 

The challenge to adults responding to bullying and harassment is to remember three things about students who are harmed and students who do the harm:

  • They are children, and their brain is not yet completely knit together;
  • They act out of a context, either from what they have learned at home, in their physical community, their on-line community or from the actions of formal and informal leaders in this country;
  • They have the ability to tell their own story, say what they need and fix their own problems.

Educators, reflecting the community in which they work, have tried for years to punish bullying and harassing behavior, without complete success in either stopping the behavior or changing it.  To paraphrase Zehr, schools will not be served if we maintain our exclusive focus on the questions that drive most disciplinary codes:  What rules have been broken? Who did it? What do they deserve?

Because I believe that students’ behavior have to be considered within the context of the environment that they are in, it is imperative (and only fair) to change our approach and try the “true justice” as Zehr writes.  “True justice requires instead, that we ask questions such as these: Who have been hurt? What do they need? Whose obligations and responsibilities are these? Who has a stake in this situation? What is the process that can involve the stakeholders in finding a solution?”

When I think of applying these questions to some of the cases that we have heard across the nation, I think especially about the question, “Who has a stake in this situation?”  If a student has been harmed with bullying or harassment that is a very serious situation.  Both the student who was harmed and the student who did the harm need support.

Inviting family members who may be mortified at their child’s behavior to a repair of harm process helps to provide support to the parents.  It helps them separate who they are as people and who their family is, from the behavior of their child—a helpful discharge of understandable feelings of embarrassment or shame.

Inviting family member who have been hurt because their child has been hurt, need support to support their student.  They also need to be offered the opportunity for empathy for all the people affected by the harm.  They need their sense of embarrassment (why did this happen to my child?) heard and discharged through caring support.

Inviting family members who may in a first response minimize the behavior, but who are willing to come to a repair of harm process nonetheless, provides them with an opportunity to learn the effects of words and actions on real people.  The effect of words and actions spoken on a screen can seem like a fiction.  But sitting in the same physical space with other people is engaging in reality.  The invitation for empathy is strong.  The opportunity to reflect upon all actions and words is offered.  Support is given again to efforts that separate behaviors from a person’s inherent value as a human being.

Everyone—the person harmed and the person who did the harm, as well as their family and other people affected by the harm, are offered an opportunity to be supported even as they may feel embarrassment or shame.  This support is offered explicitly—I am glad you are here, we need you to help repair this harm—and implicitly.  People get to talk without interruption.  Everyone is invited to listen.  All people are greeted with a smile when they arrive.  All ideas and feelings are considered.  Cookies are offered at the end.

I believe, as circle keepers Carolyn Boyes Watson and Kay Pranis teach that that “all human beings have a deep desire to be in a good relationship.”  I believe that parents want that for their children.  So the unintended positive outcome of bullying and harassment, exposed in such a raw way today, could be that we help each other fulfill that deep desire.  That by addressing harm we can use the gifts that we all have, as “everyone is needed for what they bring.”

So when you hear, in your community, of bullying, harassment or a hate crime in a school, call the principal and leave a message:  say, “Have you considered a restorative process?”

Nancy Riestenberg
NACRJ Advisory Council Member
Author, Circle in the Square
Restorative Practices Specialist, Minnesota Dept. of Education

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