Posts Tagged conferencing

Online Interactions Are Cultivating Anti-Social Boys

Published by — How do we help a kid whose social life is mainly with his screens?

The boy shrugs off a question for maybe the 10th time that afternoon.  He seems incapable of simple human interaction.  Mom tries to talk for him as he wriggles and writhes at the table in her impeccable kitchen.  No, she’s told, he needs to be accountable for himself.  This is his problem.  We’ll call him Alex.

Some days back he did a totally stupid thing that scared his entire school community, so he’s being conferenced by a facilitator working in Rhode Island’s newish Restorative Justice initiative.  The adults close to him know his act was mindless.  Alex insists “it was just a joke.”  The police have no sense of humor about such things.  But they are working with the school and conference facilitator to see if a safe, effective alternative can divert this 15-year-old boy of color from the traditional Court route.

Alex absolutely must make amends.  He needs to rebuild the trust he’s destroyed.  He seems almost desperate to do so.  Okay, but how?  Shrug.  Silence.

The facilitator holds a finger up to stop Mom from speaking.  With begging eyes, the boy looks at the facilitator, then at Mom, hoping for help.  He starts to speak, starts again, despairs, and shrugs.  Just to break the ice, the facilitator smiles and asks what he’d like to be doing at this moment?  Alex just wants to be left alone to play his video games and “relax.”  Right.

Learning social skills in cyberspace

The facilitators and schools see an emerging pattern: Some boys feel most at home inside electronic worlds.  Mom, Grandma or whomever can no longer supervise the kids’ addiction to electronic distractions.  Weirdly, some of their male siblings also play the games, but don’t get so hooked.

The pattern includes parents saying that the problem started innocently enough.  The home has an xBox or some way of getting on the internet, just like everyone else.  But at some point it became compulsive.  Even dinner could not compete.

These boys are disengaged from school and are often in trouble, frequently for misuse of electronics.  They lack “sandbox” skills — listening, taking turns, joking in a way that is not infuriating.  Their lame efforts at interacting backfire, so they retreat into telling themselves that everyone dislikes them for no reason.

Another boy, at another school, in a totally unrelated conference, considers his peers to be “horrible.”  His mom explains emphatically that the internet is where his friends are, so there is no question about taking that away from him.  This cheers the gloomy kid up enough to explain that on the internet, when someone is “horrible you can just block them.”  The facilitator wonders if he is ever horrible back.  “Well sure, when they deserve it.”  The facilitator asks if he’s ever horrible to real people, face-to-face?  “I have to be because they are so horrible to me.”

Both he and the mom in this case are sure the problem lies beyond the child and his behavior.  She, like the other moms in these cases, explains the child’s diagnosis.  They are all diagnosed.  They are ADD, oppositional defiant or on the autism spectrum.  They take drugs or get accommodations so they can tolerate being in school.  They shouldn’t be expected to control their behavior because of their condition.  It’s up to those around them to learn to deal with their use of flagrantly ugly language or their scary behavior.

In a convenience society, nothing is quite so inconvenient as a kid

Yes, some kids really do fit the diagnoses.  But I’ve started to think that parents and the media cultivated this behavior pattern.  It starts with the commercial world selling video games that happen to act like heroin with some kids.  Then parents use the games as electronic babysitters, which erodes the parents’ own social skills and supervisory authority.  When the kids get tough to manage, the behavior-control industry steps in with a drug and a diagnosis or an excuse.

Alex, the shrugger, has no interests outside of games and no one he’d like to be with.  With Mom’s help, the facilitator makes an inventory of adults in Alex’s life who could spend time with him.  Over speaker phone, Mom introduces a young uncle to the facilitator, who explains that the boy needs to hang out with people, but no screens of any kind.  The uncle is playful and fun.  Sure, he says, his nephew can tag along on both his standing dates with friends; he plays a physical game with friends one day and hangs out at the mall on another.  The boy seems pleased and agrees to the plan.

Will this pull him into the real world?  It’s a start.  He has to be able to see and understand his behavior’s effect on other people in order to have a successful conference.  Right now that seems a ways off and a lot of work.  But juvenile detention would merely crush him.

Boys who stay locked in cyberspace likely won’t develop into adults that you or I want as neighbors, colleagues or even relatives.  I think cyberspace is getting to be a social-skills killer – at least in certain kids.

(Photo: Creative Commons)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUBFor more, see or contact her at The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Drugs, Drop-outs and Restorative Justice Conferencing

Published by — When a student knows what she wants, it’s a lot easier to help her get through trouble.


The lovely Roxanna, as we’ll call her, sighed heavily as she joined a circle that included a school administrator, two conference facilitators and her very pissed-off dad.  The teacher who had promised to make it could not.  Roxanna agreed to participate in a restorative-justice conference for drug possession, hoping to resolve the matter by making reparations rather than risk more traditional consequences in which she’ll have little or no say.

Simultaneously sheepish and defiant – common behavior in these conferences – she assured the group that she wasn’t high.  She’d just forgotten that she had a little stash.  Her purse spilled, and an adult saw it.  But she wasn’t stoned or acting weird.  So it wasn’t a big a deal.  She’s hardly the only one who smokes weed occasionally.  Besides, she says, she’s changed.  She has ambitions, so she needs her diploma.

Everyone else at the table thinks it’s a big deal.  Her father certainly didn’t struggle to bring his family from their homeland for the kind of nonsense his kid is dishing out.  To him, this is very personal, very upsetting.

This conferencing program helps divert students from getting caught up in “the system” – meaning Truancy Court, Family Court and the judicial system.  Actually, as the objections to marijuana have relaxed over the years, Rhode Island and other states have made possession of small amounts a matter of relatively minor fines.  Drugs are still illegal for anyone under 18, but Roxanna is over 18.  The police could only issue a ticket for a fine that no one wants to make this dad pay.

The conference is Roxanna’s second chance at a second chance.

While the cops aren’t much of a problem, Roxanna risks losing the opportunity to get her high school diploma. She’s in a special program for students who are “over-aged and under-credited” — meaning that they blew off a significant portion of high school.  She had already dropped out once and now she’s back.  But given her age and drug-involvement, the program has no obligation to keep her.  Everyone at the table hopes she’ll take advantage of this unusual conferencing opportunity to salvage her situation.

The lead facilitator goes over the simple rules – take turns, speak for yourself, no accusatory statements, things like that.  The victims speak first, so the administrator, representing the community, talks with frustration about what a plague drugs in school have become.  Doing drugs out of school is bad enough, but in school drugs wreck learning both for the addled and the students around them.

Roxanna shrugs; she’s not convinced. She reiterates that she wasn’t high.  The adults cringe.

Then the dad tearfully explains how hurt he feels.  He and her siblings love her, but they are ashamed.  Roxanna rolls her eyes.  He’s had to take part of the day off work, which he’ll have to make up.  Mom’s apparently not in the picture.  He seems exhausted.

Roxanna says she’s sorry already, wishing everyone would just chill.  The facilitators shift to the reparations phase, when the group tries to hammer out an agreement.  Assuming she’s remorseful, which seems doubtful at this point, and that she completes the agreement, the slate will be wiped clean with no further repercussions.  Per protocol, the facilitators begin by asking her what she hopes for after high school, what she wants to do for a career.

“I want to be a stewardess.” 

Oka-ay.  Kids who just shrug when asked what they want are far harder to help.  A kid’s dream is like building materials for facilitators; you can work with them.  One facilitator opens a laptop and searches “requirements for becoming a stewardess.”  Humph.  He scans it, reading out loud – you need a high-school diploma or GED…  no visible tattoos.  Ooooo, mandatory drug testing is a condition of hiring for most airlines.  Random drug testing thereafter.  Stewardesses need to be drug-free.

That totally got her attention.  The conference went silent as she digested the information.  Her defensiveness softened.  Her voice was apologetic.  “I really do want to be a stewardess.”  All right, then, what would make this right?  Suddenly becoming a problem-solver, she suggested reparations – three sessions of drug counseling, an essay on the effects of drugs that she would proofread carefully, and the promise to be scrupulously on time to her classes every day.  Writing this agreement was quick; everyone signed.  Dad looked like he could finally sleep at night.  Very gratifying.

Roxanna did finish what she promised to do, and she did it well before the agreement’s deadline.  And she received her diploma in a cap and gown during a mid-year ceremony.  Getting kicked out of the program would have been painful, but not nearly as memorably upsetting as sitting with family and supporters to give an account of her foolish behavior and take responsibility for it.  Without the conference, Roxanna’s misbehavior could have ended her dream.  But I’ll bet she’s a stewardess now.


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, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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When Parents Separate, Family Courts Make Bad Situations Worse

Published by — The legal system is about winning and losing, not about helping a broken family heal.


A Chicago firefighter and the mother of their 10-year old daughter Alyssa agreed to live close to each other so Dad could see his child every day.  The extended family, especially two doting grandpas, wrapped themselves around the girl and her parents — the picture of a modern, amicably-separated family.

Then Mom got an appealing work opportunity in Hawaii.  Bill Heenan, Dad, wasn’t thrilled, but figured that since the job was temporary, Mom and Alyssa should have a tropical adventure.  After the move, though, communication slowed to a crawl.  Then Mom found a permanent position out there.  Whoa!  That was totally not okay.  Now angry, Heenan ordered Mom to bring the girl back, or else.  She chose “or else.”  They both got lawyers.  And so war began.

Every year couples head to Family Court armed with lawyers who fight for the best deal for their client.  With or without legal marriage, the Law treats couples mainly as an economic institution.  Courts adjudicate the division of property and arrangements for the children.  The legal system is about winning and losing, and certainly not about helping the broken family heal.

So, kids become pawns and bargaining chips.  As if the family break-up is none of their business, kids have no role, except on paper, somewhat like property.  Even the parents themselves have limited roles in Court, since the lawyers speak for their clients.

Dad won custody.

But while his lawyer was happy-dancing about the victory, Heenan was miserable.  Moving Alyssa to Chicago, away from her mom, would rip the extended family apart irreparably.  The girl would resent him.  He was in a lose-lose situation.

In a unique twist of fate, though, their wise judge, Martha Mills, also foresaw misery on this family’s horizon.  She was interested in restorative justice (RJ), whose focus is healing.  As such, she knew that two members of Chicago’s RJ community, Peter Newman and Elizabeth Vastine, had begun to facilitate restorative “conferences,” which offered families the opportunity to sort out their issues themselves in a structured, supported conversation.  Both family-law lawyers themselves, Newman and Vastine had seen so much social carnage in the wake of Court decisions that they felt compelled to offer families an alternative to winning and losing.  Mills sent the Heenan family to them.

When Heenan opted to go to conference, his lawyer freaked.  They’d won, for God’s sake!  What’s not to like?  The lawyer stormed out.  Who needs clients who can’t enjoy vengeance?  Mills and Heenan were hoping the conference facilitators could help them craft an agreement that worked better for everyone involved.

Mom and Alyssa had come from Hawaii for the Chicago Court dates.  To get them back to work and school ASAP, Newman and Vastine had to speed through the preparatory conference work.  They did add that in their experience, well-prepared conferences were the most successful.  At the conference meeting, the two grandpas were able to join Mom, Dad and Alyssa.

During the long meeting, Alyssa talked a lot.  She talked about liking her friends in Hawaii, liking her school, and hating feeling torn between one parent and the other.  Couldn’t they figure out how to stay in touch?  Work out visits?  Dad utterly lost it, crying audibly, until Alyssa held up the “talking piece” to remind him that it was her turn.  Poor upset Dad pulled himself together.

At one point the grandpas took Alyssa out for food to allow her parents to get into gritty money issues.  Dad had been paying child support, but was vehemently unwilling to touch the college fund he’d started years earlier.  He’d had little education and wasn’t going to let that happen to Alyssa.  But by allowing some of the college fund to pay for flights between Hawaii and Chicago, the adults managed to negotiate regular visits.  The grandpas were very happy.  Alyssa had a great visit with her big Chicago family.  And the conference ensured that her future graduations and other family gatherings could be happy occasions.

But the last, fabulous twist in this story drives home the incalculable value of healing family ties.  Mom got cancer.  A bad one.  For the first round of treatments, Heenan’s dad stayed with Alyssa in Hawaii while Mom was in the hospital.  But the aggressive cancer returned.  Heenan’s new wife, now Step-mom, researched extensively and found cutting-edge Chicago doctors using promising new techniques.  Mom stayed with Heenan’s dad while undergoing treatment there.  In the end, they couldn’t save her, but her illness galvanized the family.  Grandpa even moved to Hawaii to allow Alyssa to finish high school there.

None of that good stuff would have happened if Heenan had just taken his custody settlement and asserted his legal rights.  The legal system has its time and place, but efforts towards social healing should always be tried first.  Cynics can scoff, but actually, happy ending are possible.


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, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Ask Kids Good Questions, Then Let Them Answer

Published by — In conference, we understand why many parents want to speak for their kids.  But it’s very enabling.


Today we’re in a conference with school staff, Mom, and her middle-school son who we’ll call Ryan.  Kids and their families come to conference when the youth’s behavior negatively affects the school community.  Conferences are structured meetings designed to get to the root of the problem.

Ryan’s already missed 15 days of school.  Mom notes that her kids always skip the first week or so because “nothing happens anyway.”  (School staff cringe.)  Then every day he did come, he was tardy.  Rhode Island law deems that four tardies add up to an absence.  So he’s already way over the 18 days, or 10% of a 180-day school year, that defines “chronic absenteeism” and eligibility for Truancy or Family Court.

Tardiness is not a petty issue.  Once teachers have settled their classes down to work, each tardy kid disrupts the class; each needs settling themselves.

Employers and colleges get furious with K-12 education because K-12 seems to teach lax attendance by tolerating it.  Reliably showing up on time is a basic life skill.

Conferences put the focus and onus on the kid.

If Ryan can’t figure out how to change his own behavior, the adults will have to keep working on it for him.  So after a few preliminaries, the meeting begins by asking him questions to understand what’s making him late.  He wriggles, paying no attention to the proceedings, waiting for it to be over.  Mom answers all the questions.  When asked to let him speak, she says, “He doesn’t like to talk, so I do it.”

While she’s refreshingly blunt about it, conference facilitators see many parents who think nothing of speaking for their kids.  Very enabling.  No one likes the uncomfortable silence that falls while it dawns on the kid that the adults seriously expect an answer.  It’s sorely tempting to let him or her off the hook.

In fact, even some school staff find the silence too painful.  Yes, some are just impatient.  But many suffer the pervasive and misguided belief that a kid shouldn’t feel bad, ever.  So like the parents, they too rush in to spare the kid the work of formulating an answer.

We all hate that prick of shame we all get when we’ve done something we’re not proud of.  But, as John Braithwaite points out, shame builds conscience.  Sometimes children or youth need to squirm on the other end of a good question to start taking ownership of their crummy choices.

What’s important is not to let them get stuck in shame.  Once they’re chagrinned by the poor choices they’ve made, adults can help them find specific strategies to avoid the mess again.  But first the grownups need to swallow hard and not enable.

Recently, Ryan’s mom has been driving Ryan and his siblings to school to make sure they’re on time.  So she’s clueless as to why he’s always late.  With kind questioning, Ryan finally starts explaining that he gets caught up in school social life and ignores the bell.  Oh, and his first-period teacher doesn’t like him.  School staff suggest that tensions with that teacher could be a result of disrupting the class every single day, which might go away when that stops.  Yeah, he can kinda see that.

Mom jumps in again, swearing she’ll make him obey.  Actually, Mom, you can’t.  His behavior is up to him.  In only a few years, after high school, he’ll legally be a man.  It’s easier to learn the habits of successful men while still young.  Later on Mom can’t help him if he’s in trouble.  He’d feel funny about bringing his mom to take care of problems if his boss or college professor is mad about his being late.

Ryan bursts out laughing.  In a little impromptu role-play he tells his imaginary boss that he’s going to tell his mom, ’cause she’s going to fix things.  He cracks himself up.  This is the moment conferences aim for.  He gets what a doofus he’s been.  Whether he changes his behavior is yet to be seen.  But he made it over the first hump and saw himself through the eyes of others in the context of his community.

Then he gets hugely creative with offering specifics for his Restoration Plan.  Many kids just shrug when facilitators probe for their solutions.  But Ryan knows there’s an alarm clock he can use.  He’ll lay out his clothes and shower the night before.  And more.  He’s on it.

Ryan signs the Restoration Plan.

Suddenly super serious, he’s like a national leader signing an act of war.  Mom’s a little taken aback, but she signs too.  They make a date for a follow-up meeting.  Ryan’s strangely gleeful.  Empowered, hopefully.  He gets a late pass and all but skips out of there.

Mom looks like she has a lot of questions she can’t quite formulate.  Her idea of good parenting had been to force her kids’ compliance and when that fails, to protect them from accountability.  It hadn’t been working.  She’s speechless.  Without smiling, she offers her hand and says a sincere thanks to the adults.

Kids are often lectured, yelled at or otherwise punished.  But few seem to have actually been held accountable and asked to explain, own and account for their actions.  Conferencing does them the favor of asking hard questions and expecting answers.


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, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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A Fabulous Question Rescues a Teen’s Life

Published by — Restoration needs a caring community to help offenders see the hurt and wretchedness they’ve inflicted on others.


At the ripe old age of 13, the girl had already spent a couple of years being prostituted by her mother and taking all manner of drugs, thanks to Mom and the johns.  Nice, huh?  Among very young girls, the sex trade is less about the stereotypical pimp on the corner, and mostly about family members who see easy bucks and don’t think there’s anything all that wrong about it.  That’s not what today’s story is about; I’m just saying, ’cause most people don’t know.  Let’s call our 13-year-old “Charity.”

Minnesota child-protective services removed her from her home.  Apparently Mom came from an amazing family, because, as you’ll see, they went to great lengths to keep Charity out of foster care.  Not surprisingly, given what she’d been through, she was a hot mess.  Her rules were those of the mean streets, aggressive.  So living with kindly Grandma and Grandpa was not destined to be a great experience for any of them.  When the family gathered in a last ditch effort to save her, at the St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Center, Grandma was still beside herself with rage about how horribly the girl had treated them.

After the grandparents had had it, Charity’s heroic uncle had taken her in.  But she was a beast there too.  One day she swiped the urn containing the ashes of the uncle’s partner’s parents off the mantle, smashing it and scattering its contents all over the living room.  That was it.  The partner was done.  The uncle could choose between them.

Try a restorative justice circle or become another bad social statistic.

Social services begged the family to talk it over one more time, in a circle process that Kris Miner, Director of SCVRJC, has honed into a near-science.  These days, courts, schools, social services and the local colleges routinely send her cases.  So Charity, her social worker, extended family and therapist met at SCVRJC.

Accountability circles are inevitably edgey, anxious, tearful.  Something bad has happened; people are upset; repair is urgent.  Skilled circle keepers (facilitators) reassure the parties that while such conversations are tough, everyone will have their say, and usually people walk away feeling better.  Keepers foster empathy so the group feels open to real repair, not vengeance, as they work toward a restoration plan.

In my experience, Miner’s circles are unique.  She spends the first full hour establishing a set of core values among the participants.  “I try to keep this part light-hearted.  We ask them to recall a fond memory of someone they’re close to, or who believed in them, and then ask what quality of that relationship makes it work.  They write it down on a paper plate.  The idea is to flood their brains with pleasantness so we can get to the compassion.  We’re helping people to get through the experience, to ease them into it so it’s safe and okay to be there.”

The great qualities of those close relationships are predictable:  trust, respect, forgiveness.  When ready, each person puts their picnic-paper plate on the floor in front of them, creating a circle of values — basically a cooler version of group norms.  Then Miner asks, “Can you commit to try your best to honor these values while we’re together?”  Only then does she dig in to the specifics of what happened, who was affected, and what on earth they can do to make things right.

Per reputation, Charity was horrible. 

Restoration only works if a caring community helps offenders see the hurt and wretchedness they’ve inflicted on others.  Some miscreants are already so out of reach, they’re beyond caring that other people care about them.  Charity’s circle was going sour; she wasn’t getting it.  While radically improving the odds of a good outcome, restoration is no guarantee.

Miner says, “The success of circles is all about asking useful questions, and the questions depend on who’s in front of you.”  That day Miner asked, “What was each person in the group doing when they were 13?”  This got Charity’s attention.  Every adult was once 13.  Charity was particularly struck that her therapist’s parents were in the Peace Corps at the time, in a place that sounded insane to Charity.  Well yeah, it was, said the therapist, but there was no alternative.  Charity finally connected with the participants when she could imagine them at her age.  They were proof that life went on, things changed, and here they are all those years later.  “Empathy really grew,” Miner says.

Charity wasn’t exactly repentant.  But she did arrive at the all-important point when the offender can see herself in the context of concerned people knocking themselves out to hang onto her but not the anti-social behavior.  Suddenly foster care looked really unappealing, especially as compared with making a good-faith effort to cooperate with her family.  Together the group hashed out a solution which had family members sharing the burden, providing generous respite care for the primary caretaker.  One kid saved.

Miner’s question brought a girl back.  No small feat.  Inspired restorative questions are this side of magic.


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, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Create More Disciplinary Options Than just Suspensions and Cops

Published by — “You’re outta here” gets the problem off the school’s plate — and postpones any real solution.

If you look into school-suspension data — state or local — you’ll find a bunch of numbers that tell you nothing about the severity of the offenses.  You’ll find high rates clustered in vague categories like “disorderly conduct” and “subordination/disrespect.”  Those could mean anything from mouthing off to a teacher to stealing a cell phone.  And what do suspensions for “assault” mean?  Assault is an arrestable offense, as are stealing, possession of illegal substances, sexual harassment and others.  Not everyone knows that often schools often tuck low-level arrestable offenses into suspension data.

But what should a school do with such offenses?  Many would insist the police be called.  Yes, if the kid has been outright violent or has already thumbed his nose at second chances, schools have little choice but to call the cops.  But generally, when kids do largely stupid things, the last thing most educators want is to involve police.

Involvement with the justice system can wreck any kid’s future.  Colleges ask about convictions, for example.  Even when kept quiet, arrests have a way of becoming fairly public.  Court proceedings are hard to hide.  Higher-income kids might get costly lawyers to help them, but a low-income kid entering the judicial system can seal an ugly fate.  The justice system puts poor kids on the assembly line for future prisoners known as “the school-to-prison pipeline.”  Most urban school adults resist — thank God! — adding more misery to the life of a kid who was born without a break in the first place.

Two bad options.  Neither of which holds the kid accountable.

So, schools can:  1.  Kick the kid to the cops.  Really harsh.  Potentially devastating.  Or 2.  Kick the kid out on suspension, which is basically a vacation on a couch in front of a TV.

There’s a ridiculous gap between the two.  But all forms of kick-out culture are super convenient.  “You’re outta here” gets the problem off the school’s immediate plate and onto someone else’s.  It also postpones getting a real solution.  As problems grow, solutions get harder — stupid experimentation with drugs can grow into a tough habit to break.  So in the long run, kicking out can become wildly expensive.  Look no further than America’s prison system with its worlds-record-breaking numbers of inmates.

Conferencing assembles a crisis-intervention team.

Schools in Baltimore, MD, Oakland, CA, and elsewhere are starting to introduce restorative-justice “conferencing” as another option.  If the offenders and their families take responsibility for their actions and come to conference, the school won’t call the cops, for now.  Victims, when there are such, also must agree.  If the parties want police involvement instead, that’s their choice.  But international experience shows that conferences are highly preferable and cost-effective.

Conferences stop the assembly line to gather a small group of family and allies, and perhaps a social-service support or two, to unpack the situation.  How did we get here?  What’s going on at home, in the community, among the offender’s friends that she would come to school high or boost a kid’s laptop?  Conference participants help each other understand how to change the circumstances so the offense won’t happen again.

Ideally, the offender collaborates with parents, victims, and other participants to develop restitution plans.  When and if the plan is completed, congratulations Kid!  You’ve got a clean slate.

Currently, schools don’t have the capacity to do this.

The problem is that conferencing takes time and labor — and sometimes tons of patience with parents who prove to be a bigger problem than the kid.  A facilitator has to make the calls, get the participants clear about the rules and consequences, and then monitor progress on the restitution plan.  Hardest of all is building partnerships with community members and businesses to create restitution options.  If the kid punches a hole in the wall, best she learn to drywall and fix the mess she made.  Sometimes kids need a fat reminder they live in a community that doesn’t appreciate cleaning up after their messes.

Most schools are already stretched to the max.  In some countries, conferencing is run by police departments, but America’s police are generally so punitive we wouldn’t want them doing the work.  The press, researchers, and advocacy groups make a lot of noise about the school-to-prison pipeline.  It wrecks kids, after all, along with the future workforce and public-services budgets.  But few states or municipalities want to put resources into alternatives.

This is changing.  Recently the Central Falls School Department received a National Institute of Justice grant to get a conferencing system up and running.  They’ll collaborate on this with 4 schools in other districts.  I am intimately involved in this initiative.   We’re trying to design a system that holds kids accountable, but in a way that helps them not just stay out of trouble, but get onto a good track.  We can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing.  It wrecks kids.

Please, wish us the best of luck.

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, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Rebuilding Broken Trust in a College Community

Published by — Nothing is more convenient than the kick-out solution.  But avoiding unpacking the conflict weakens the community.

Professor David Karp runs a Restorative Justice initiative at Skidmore College and researches college-student discipline practices.  He tells this story:  Two students at a Colorado college got the brilliant idea that a prank could liven up a lecture class they found boring.  They would release a big bull snake during class.  These snakes have no venom, but look and rattle like rattlesnakes.  So, student #1 would leave a backpack containing the snake under a seat, unzip the pack and take off.  Student #2, looking to beef up his social life, would leap into the fray when the snake terrified his fellow students and become the people’s hero by bravely handling a harmless snake.

But as the drama played out, a biology major recognized the bull snake immediately and proceeded to handle it safely, grasping it just below the head.  Her educated response was ruining Student #2′s role as savior, so he grabbed the snake’s tail to get it away from her.  She lost her grip, and in the confusion, the snake bit her.  Instantly a sexy heroic act became a case of serious misconduct that was turned over to campus disciplinary officers.

Karp began his career as a researcher in law and criminal justice, but was surprised to discover that that colleges’ attitude to misconduct is not hugely different from the judicial system’s approach. Which is weird.  So his research shifted from prisons to colleges.

“As our trust in you diminishes, we’re going to work on getting rid of you.”

Karp explains that colleges have two responses to harmful behavior.  One is to impose harsh authoritarian punishment.  As he knew well from studying America’s over-flowing prison system, America is deeply committed to using punishment as a “solution” to anti-social behavior.  Historically, for colleges that’s meant 1960s scenes of protests and police beating students.  Think Kent State.

Or as a second option, Karp says, “Campus administrators search for alternatives that look like legalistic replications of ‘due process.’  There’s little talk about moral context or the consequences to the community — just discussions about whether procedures were followed.  Legal codes are content-free rules, deaf to circumstances.  Lawyers recommend that colleges create a ‘Model Student Conduct Code’ so if a student sues as a result of the college’s actions, the college will win the case.  There’s nothing about the reintegration of the student.”

These are colleges, mind you; supposedly teaching institutions.  And “discipline” means “to teach.”  Even so, depending on the offense, students might first lose social privileges or work-study jobs, then perhaps they’re barred from campus housing, and finally they’re expelled.  The message is:  “If you mess with us — whoever us is — we’ll try to change your behavior by hurting you with shunning or ostracism.”  Kick-out solutions to misbehavior are so accepted in our culture, we don’t question whether or not they work.  Actually, there’s no evidence they do.

“Trust is the gold standard of social capital.” 

Losing trust erodes any group’s willingness to cooperate and collaborate.  But how and where does anyone learn to repair broken trust when they’re thrown out of the community?  Putting the problem out of sight only gets rid of the person, not the problem.  The conflict remains unresolved.  So how do we build communities where each member has faith that however painful it’s going to be, the parties can work together to resolve conflict?  Healthy communities are made up of members who trust that talking an issue through, in a structured, facilitated way, will maximize a good outcome.  No guarantee, mind you, but maximize the possibility.

In cases like the snake prank, Restorative Justice programs like Karp’s offer students and families two choices.  They can do it old-school, lawyer up and refuse to accept responsibility.  Or they can go to “conference.”  That means that after considerable preparation, trained restorative practitioners bring the parties together. The face-to-face conference gives victims the opportunity to talk about their experience and to find out what on earth the offender thought he was doing.  Cooperative offenders learn a lesson they will never forget.  And restorative justice research shows that victim satisfaction is overwhelmingly positive.  Being heard is huge.

Restoration is hard, often painful work. 

When the student who’d grabbed the snake came to conference, he got an earful from the bio major and others he’d terrified in that class, which couldn’t have been easy on him.  In the end, he agreed to a restitution plan that would reinstate him at the college, in good standing.  He wrote a research paper on the trauma he probably caused the snake.  But most importantly, he studied up on restorative responses to stupid behavior, and later gave workshops in restorative practices using his own story as an illustrative example.  He continued giving these workshops well after his restitution was complete.

In the short run, nothing is more convenient than the kick-out solution.  But by avoiding the work of unpacking the conflict, the community itself is weakened.  And really, none of the parties learns a thing.  Which is a crime on a college campus.

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, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Juvenile Justice Is Not Only Blind, But Deaf

Published by — Increasingly, the formal legal system has taken responsibility for conflict management out of the hands of ordinary people.

Sometimes achieving Justice is as simple as listening until the victim feels heard.

Increasingly, the formal legal system has taken responsibility for conflict management out of the hands of ordinary people.  The restorative justice movement is particularly critical of how the traditional justice system sidelines crime victims almost entirely.  As we all know from TV courtrooms, the crime is expressed as the State versus Julia.  But where are the victims?  They’re the occasion of the crime, to be sure, but at most they might write an impact statement to be read at sentencing or get some sort of Court-determined restitution.  Only the police are much interested in what victims have to say, and even their interest does not extend to what victims might want or need.  So lawyers and judges are by no means accustomed to asking how on earth such behavior – from obnoxious to heinous – came to pass, never mind how healing from this rift or crime might come about.

A professor of law, a former State’s Attorney and now the Governor’s liaison to the criminal justice program, Robert Sand has law-and-order cred.  Speaking at a recent Restorative Justice conference, he says as communities lose their tightly-knit character, they also lose their ability to handle their own conflicts.  So conflicts of all kinds are either ignored, which can lead to festering, or are handed over to the formal justice system, where victims are non-entities.  As a result, Sand says, fewer people get what they really want, which is to be heard.  Among his other stories, all far more grisly, he tells this trivial one to illustrate the efficiency and satisfaction of meeting a victim’s needs.

In one of Vermont’s many rural counties, an enterprising woman decided to set up a roadside farm stand to sell the excess of summer vegetables she’d been producing.  The display had an umbrella to shield the vegetables from the summer sun, a price list and a cigar box to collect the money on the honor system.

After some time she realized that a woman and her son were routinely stealing zucchini.  Infuriated, she installed a video camera to catch them in the act, and did.  With hard evidence in hand, she took her complaint to the local police station.  By all accounts it was theft, which is a crime.

Sand reminds his audience that at the end of the growing season, zucchini is so plentiful that you can’t give it away.  But rather than be dismissive and unresponsive, a Vermont Court Advocate took on the case.  Very civilized.

Just by having a conversation, the Court Advocate quickly found that the woman didn’t particularly want the thief to be punished or even to make restitution.  She certainly didn’t want that boy’s mother to go to jail.  What she did want was to tell that woman how sad and disappointed she was for her and her son.

The Advocate identified the perpetrator from the video, explained the situation and set up a meeting.  Together the vic, perp and Advocate had a structured and supervised conversation in a room at the Courthouse.  It didn’t take long.  The regional court system had no more dealings with the offending mom or her son, and for all we know hearing how much they’d betrayed the trust of that vegetable-vendor put them both on the straight and narrow.

But whatever the effect on the offenders, the conversation made the victim happy.  She was, after all, in the right – however trivially.  And she was only asking to be heard.

Now you may think that spending Court resources on such a crime is a waste of taxpayers’ money.  But I’m entirely with the vegetable lady wanting to hold that mom accountable for disrespecting a local honor system.  More importantly, modeling theft to the young is always a bad idea, no matter how petty.  I don’t think I could have confronted that mom without some authority standing by me.  Where else could she have turned?

Sand’s point is that we can no longer let Courts act as official non-listeners.  Very often, hearing the victims’ stories shows the case in a surprisingly different light.  And many times, as in this one, listening can just make a case go away, with a little learning and healing under the parties’ belts.

But what we’ve got right now is a judicial system that is not only blind, but stone deaf.  Where’s the justice in that?

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 analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Restorative Conferencing Changes Rotten Behavior

Published by — No one wants kids to be arrested.  But equally horrible is just letting the matter go.  Conferencing offers a third option.

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 analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Bringing Kids In Trouble Back From The Brink

Published by — “I believe everyone deserves second chances, and not just college students with clean records.”

Eight years ago, Elissa Bellinger was a happy freshman at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She’d never been in trouble, and never expected she would be.

But one night she and her roommates hit the bars and had a few, such as college kids do. Except they got caught by the police for under-aged drinking. Even most high-school students think drinking is no biggie unless something bad happens, like a car accident. But in 1984, Congress pegged the minimum age for purchasing alcohol and public drinking at 21, for all states. So it is illegal.

Besides the humiliation of telling her parents, Bellinger was facing an arrest and maybe conviction on her adult record. However, the University’s Office of Student Conduct offered her and the roomies two choices: Take your chances with the regular Court process, or participate in a new program called restorative justice. If you complete the terms of restitution agreement you make with the community members at the restorative conference, your record will be wiped clean.

Like many college towns, Boulder was plagued with under-age drinking and irresponsible drinking generally. Residents hated the alcohol-fueled riots that erupted at political rallies, lost football games, and similarly lame excuses to drink and go nuts. Every year, cops made thousands of arrests; courts issued fines and sentences. But they weren’t denting the problem.

So in 2006, the town and the University agreed to divert offenders like Bellinger away from the expensive, ineffective court proceedings that wreck kids’ records. The University would handle their students’ under-age drinking offenses, committed on or off campus. The town’s judicial system would expunge a kid’s record if all terms were met.

As such, Boulder was a rare American adopter of the restorative justice philosophy that had long been improving public services in New Zealand, Australia, and other countries. This healing, restorative mindset has struggled to take root in America. Though last year the states of Colorado and Washington both passed legislation to expand restorative justice. Restoration cuts recidivism rates, often to single-digit percentages. Less recidivism means less crime and its associated costs.

Conventional courts determine guilt or innocence and then assign punishment. Offenders don’t learn much from the experience, which is why so many go back out and re-offend.

Bellinger chose to participate in a “circle” or “conference.” She had to describe what she’d done and hear community members express how her behavior had affected them and others in the town. This process is usually uncomfortable for the offender, which is fine. They need to know specifically how their thoughtless, selfish act felt to those on the receiving end. Offenders don’t quickly forget their shame — thus restoration’s low recidivism rates. Then if the group agrees that the offender “gets it,” they all craft a restitution plan. Failure to meet the restitution plan sends the offender back to the courts.

Bellinger says she “knew nothing going into the circle. But that was part of the beauty. It was so new; they’d only just started the program. But also keeping my record clean was a big pull. The conference itself was intimidating, scary and enlightening. It was a really different perspective to look at how I was impacting others. I had to take responsibility for my actions. That was powerful.”

Boulder’s restitution plans included a pre-determined requirement of 12 hours of community service. When Bellinger studied the list of non-profits where she could work, she seized the chance to serve as one of the community members who hear cases such as her own.

“That was amazing. I saw my peers want to take responsibility for their wrong-doing. Having another peer talking with them was powerful. I’ve seen people truly change from this process. So, as a junior, I began facilitating conferences. And in my senior year, I became the case manager for the program. After graduating, I was offered an internship in the Office of Student Conduct. Actually, I had concerns about that job. Except for the one diversion program, I felt it operated from a punitive model. But I figured that the best way to change that was to get inside the organization. During the four years I worked there, I created a new model for handling the huge influx of fake ID tickets coming from the cops.”

And again, with the conferencing program in place, recidivism for fake IDs dropped like a brick.

“I believe everyone deserves these second chances, and not just college students with clean records.”

Today Bellinger is in Smith College’s social-work program, determined to use her degree to help social service systems, especially the justice system, adopt restorative justice techniques.

“My friends say I’m the only person they know who could get into serious trouble and turn it into a career and passion.”

I certainly hope she’s not the only one. Restorative justice saves lives, reputations, families, college careers and communities. As restoration gives more and more people a second chance, surely some of them will join Bellinger in trying to pluck others from the jaws of America’s vengeful, destructive judicial system. Meting out punishments doesn’t help to mend an offender’s broken life or re-knit the community she harmed. Restoration does.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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