St. Paul, MN
Sarah Mattox wrote today. Sarah is the Court Diversion Coordinator for the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast. She wanted to know if I had done my homework. She didn’t quite say it that way but I knew that’s what she meant. Sarah included her draft of a “Restorative Services Menu” and gently suggested that “if you haven’t yet turned your attention to this project” that I might want to spend a little time on it before looking at what she had produced. Hint, hint.
Before doing what she does now, which is working restoratively with kids in conflict and kids who have had a brush with the law, Sarah worked for years in the Boundary Waters area of Minnesota with at risk youth. A couple of years ago Sarah was ready for another challenge so she and her husband canoed from Minnesota back home to Maine. That journey ended and she started another – a Restorative Justice one. Sarah is passionate about RJ and her appetite for it is voracious.
A couple of weeks ago, Sarah and I met along with Patty Kimball, the Executive Director of the Restorative Justice Institute of Maine. Sarah wanted to brainstorm. She wanted to get her arms around the options available for restorative responses to misbehavior, wrongdoing and crime.
We talked about healing circles and restorative circles, about restorative mediation and restorative community conferencing. And we talked about the variations of these. We considered whether or not each fits within a spectrum along with the others or whether it’s even appropriate to talk about a “spectrum”.
We considered whether or not it is the number of participants that determines the process to be used, or whether it is the nature of the offense or conflict. We also considered the role the referral source plays in determining the appropriate venue for bringing people together.
We made some headway but acknowledged that further reflection was needed. Sarah suggested we each work on a “menu” – and get back to her by March 1. As usual, I have procrastinated. But not because of lack of effort. There are some ways of working restoratively with youth that don’t fit within the usual boxes.
I was thinking today about a program I was involved in a few years ago when I was still a prosecutor. It was with ninth graders who were failing. They had been moved from “day school” to “night school”. This meant they attended class four afternoons a week, from 2:30 – 5:30. If ever there was a prescription for failure, this was it. And the school district knew it. I was asked to put together a restorative response. These kids weren’t in conflict and they hadn’t misbehaved. But the usual ways in which teachers and administrators approached them weren’t working. So, with out input, the school identified the twenty students most at risk.
The approach we adopted was simple, have a “restorative meeting” at least once a month with each of the students. The meetings were held every Friday and the student could have anyone at the table he or she wanted. The conversations were not about deficiencies but what each student was good at and what each needed to succeed. These were real conversations, averaging thirty to forty minutes. We held five of these meetings every Friday.
I remember one boy, Tony. He was a big, likable kid. But he didn’t like school. And his parents weren’t good at getting him there. The previous school year he was absent at least fifty times. At the rate he was going he would never have enough credits to graduate. At the first meeting in September we just talked. We found out that Tony liked horses. He lived on a small acreage with his parents and two sisters. Tony talked about spending most of his free time caring for the family’s horses.
Then I asked Tony what he wanted to do with his life. He said he wanted to be a comedian. I asked him what he was doing to get there. He said he told jokes to his friends. He said he was pretty funny. I told him if he wanted to be a comedian that someday he would have to get up on a stage to tell his jokes. Tony said he knew that. I asked him if he had plan. He didn’t. Then I asked him if he would consider getting involved with the theater department. He said he liked the idea but didn’t know what to do.
Needless to say, we got Tony involved in theater. He blossomed. As a result, he came to school almost everyday. We met with Tony one Friday a month throughout the school year. His absenteeism went down and his grades went up. By November he was back in “day school”. By the end of the year he was caught up on his credits. The results were the same for almost every one of the other “night school” kids.
The “program” was not a miracle program. It worked because, with the help of a facilitator, the school, Tony and Tony’s family took the time to have a conversation – once a month without fail.
So I’m not sure where the process Tony was involved in fits within a Restorative Services menu. Although I am sure that it must.
I need to get back to Sarah with my proposed menu. I’m not very good with boxes but I’ll figure it out.
- Fred Van Liew