Restorative Justice and Systemic Change: To Do or Not to Do?

When we are facilitating restorative justice circles and discover that there are patterns within the system that are causing conflict, trauma or dysfunction, should circle facilitators take measures to help the systemic problems be addressed? Here is a situation that I encountered and I’m not sure what the answer to this question is.

We were doing restorative justice circles in a high school that was primarily a zero tolerance system. Students who got into fights and were then disciplined had to sign a “no contact contract”, agreeing to have no verbal or physical contact with the other student for the remainder of the school year. If contact was had, the contract said the punishment would be increased and they might be sent to the police. As a result, after a fight the students did not communicate.

We quickly discovered, as the students talked to each other in circles held after a fight, that setting other kids up for a fight was easy to do. By saying to Tom, “Joe is going to get his brother and fight you,” then reporting back to Joe that “Tom said he is going to get his two brothers and fight you,” bravado required that the challenge to fight not be turned down. In this way, the school process could be disrupted and the student who set them up would not be discovered because Joe and Tom could not talk to each other. We saw this pattern occur repeatedly. Setting up a fight was the perfect crime in this punitive justice environment.

We quickly saw this was part of the school culture, but we never raised it as a systemic issue with anyone, including the students who brought the issue to the circles. I now feel like this was a lost opportunity, but I’m not sure what an appropriate way to make this systemic problem known and to perhaps be addressed would have been.

Not ever having had a conversation about how facilitators might help systemic issues that they discover be addressed, or even a discussion about whether or not that would be appropriate, we did nothing about it.

How do you think a situation like this should be handled?

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