Humans Of Restorative Justice #6 - "Co-Location"

Humans of Restorative Justice stories are written and edited by David Levine based on interviews with real-world practitioners.

“Co-Location”  from interview with Miriam of Brooklyn, NY

I had just finished logging some behavioral incidents on our computer system at the end of a long school day, then scribbling some notes to myself on what follow up was needed in the morning. There were a few parent calls to be made, conversations with student advisors to be had, as well as connecting with the other dean and the school social worker. Sometimes I think this job must be like working as a line cook during a lunch rush, orders coming in faster than you can fill them, many skillets going at once, all needing your attention. But it’s also exciting and I love the students and the great crew of people I work with, which makes all the difference. As usual, I jotted the reminders down on a yellow legal pad, then went to grab my coat from the closet. That's when I heard shouting from the hallway. After years working in New York City as a dean, I could immediately tell this was not the typical rowdiness at dismissal time, but a severe confrontation about to erupt. As I ran out I saw Claude* by the staircase, wearing gleaming white sneakers, designer jeans and a sizeable gold chain, his baby-face now contorted with anger, shouting,  “No, F--k you! Say no more, I’mma get you lined up after the game, watch. B--ch you’re getting stomped. And your boyfriend can get it too!” I swiveled my head to see that he was yelling back and forth with my student Mary. Mary was dressed in a bright blue basketball jersey, walking with her coach and a few other players down to their game at the gym.  I intercepted Mary as she started to charge for Claude and pulled her into my office. When I looked back over my shoulder I could see that Claude was gone, down the staircase and out of the building’s side exit.

After Mary had a few moments in the office to calm down, she started to relate what happened from her perspective, as well as the context. She and Claude were friendly, and they had seen each other the day before at dismissal time. They were joking around but then things escalated when he slapped her on the butt. She turned around and scolded him for doing this but he laughed and did it again. She walked over to shove him but he grabbed her tightly in a ‘bear hug’ and tried to kiss her, still laughing as she shoved him off and walked away.  

I wish that she had come right to me in the Dean’s office to tell me all of this when it happened, but she had just gone home and told her boyfriend Daryl.  By the next day, word had gotten around campus that Daryl wanted to fight.  Claude didn’t like hearing this all day from other students, so when he happened to see Mary on her way to the game he exploded, threatening to have her and her boyfriend jumped [beat up] after the game. That was the yelling part that I just walked into.

What some people might not understand about our school, like many schools in NYC and other large cities around the country, it is a 'co-location' campus. This means that it is one of several schools housed in one single large building or complex. Our school in Brooklyn is one of five that exists in the campus.  Mary was a student at our school, but Claude and Daryl each were from others, meaning that there were now three schools involved in this series of events.

I am proud to say that our school has developed and employed restorative practices for several years and I believe our staff has strong relationships with our students and families. I immediately got to work calling Mary’s mother and father, her school advisor, and consulting with the administration at our school.  Along with the violent threats, we agreed that the reported incident of the previous day was an alleged sexual assault that needed to be entered into the city’s official system. This would ensure that the proper investigation and documentation would occur.

As these events began to unfold, what I started to see clearly was despite the fact that our school had a strong vision and protocols for how we handle conflict, we had very little influence or dialogue with the other schools in the building.  I spoke with the A.P. of Claude’s school and was somewhat surprised that we did not agree that Claude should be kept home from  school the next day until we could properly deal with all the people affected by these events.  At the very least, I felt that Claude should only be allowed in to the building escorted by a family member to meet in private with relevant staff and students for conflict resolution. It was my opinion that there was too much risk, and not enough respect for the assault allegation for him to simply attend school the next day as if nothing had happened.  The AP felt that a simple mediation at some point during the day between Claude and Mary would suffice.      

      Judgement calls are often hard in schools, and I’m not certain the full rationale of their AP, but when I thought of all the mediations and circle discussions that I felt were needed, with families, team mates, counselors etc., I felt this required more than a simple mediation. A lot of people think that Restorative Justice is only about meditations, but it goes much deeper than that. Regardless, I worked until late in the night speaking with Mary’s family, informing them that Claude might be in school, and making a safety plan to put in place until we could deal with the many facets of the situation.

Unfortunately, the next day, my worst fears became reality. After almost a full day with no incidents between the students, a fire alarm rang out. This was due to students burning some pieces of paper in an upstairs bathroom (in a fourth school) that caused an early and somewhat chaotic evacuation of the building.  So, rather than coming to my office at the end of day to be escorted out, per the safety plan, Mary was ushered out in a large mass of students to the street where all the schools were gathered.  Her father was there to pick Mary up, and her boyfriend Daryl, the star of his school’s basketball team, draped his arm over her shoulder and walked her across the street to her father’s car.  In this chaotic scene, Mary’s father noticed Claude nearby with a group of friends. He decided that he wanted to go talk with him.  His intention, he later told me, was to let Claude know how serious sexual assault is, and that if he keeps grabbing up girls and playing like that he could get in serious trouble with the law, even arrested.  Now, this type of conversation is hard under any circumstance, even with a noble intention, but it could not have gone down any worse on this particular day. Fearing confrontation, Mary walked after her dad to stop him, and Daryl walked after Mary to keep her away. From Claude’s perspective, he sees the dad, Mary and Daryl all walking fast towards him and his friends.  The dad said something like “Did you grab my daughter?” And before and more conversation could happen, Claude and his friends surrounded the dad and started hitting him. Mary tried to pull someone off her dad and got punched square in the face. Daryl tried to help Mary and was also hit onto the ground.  The NYPD squad car in the area quickly sent the group scattering, but the damage was done. What started out as a student who needed coaching on his inappropriate play and issue with boundaries, now had become a massive brawl that left multiple students and one parent seriously hurt. It was a complete breakdown of order and safety and a sad day for our schools.

This traumatic event really opened my eyes. It really didn't matter how far our school had come with relationship building and restorative practices, we don’t exist in a bubble and cannot ignore the world (or schools) around us.  If we wanted a safe and accountable school, then we needed to get into dialogue with those surrounding us. We needed to offer support, not just make requests.  These conversations can often be difficult. There are emotions, building politics, and different viewpoints involved, but the safety and success of our students demanded that we start thinking bigger.  After all, the original harm had multiplied immensely in these  three days, and now Claude, a student that should have been given a great deal of attention, emotional coaching, and logical consequences was now facing the ramifications of sexual assault, verbal assault, and now physically assaulting a parent.  There was a good chance that he would serve a superintendent suspension for at least a year, and perhaps he would never return to the school. The statistical outcomes of students in this situation are bleak, and I truly felt that almost all of this could have been prevented. As sad as I was for Mary and her family, for the trauma of our students and staff who whitessed these incidents, I was also heartbroken for Claude, who may never get the help he needs to grow as a young man and to graduate.

Our campus safety meeting was already scheduled for the following Monday, and this event helped crystallize the need for what a lot of us already felt was essential. We decided that we as a group would dedicate ourselves to introducing and supporting restorative practices in all the campus schools. We now plan to invite interested staff and students for general circle training, both for classroom instructional use and for addressing conflict. We believe this will help us to build a growing coalition of people in our building working to prevent incidents of conflict from spiraling out of control like this one had. It would also allow us a common language to discuss conflict across the multiple schools.  We are also creating a sexual assault council, that would be trained to give all students access to qualified staff when dealing with assault.

There is still a lot of work to be done in our school to unpack these recent events. Circles and mediations are needed to ensure that the violence and retribution does not continue. It will not be easy but I am confident in my staff and student body to do this. Years of work with circles, compassionate deans, youth advocates, and strong academic advisories have enabled us to do this difficult emotional work. The close and transparent communication with Mary’s family has kept them as allies and believers in our school, a testament to the strong relationships we have built. I know that we can survive this as a community and grow from it. But I have also learned through these tragic events, that if we don’t really think bigger than ourselves, and work humbly with our neighbors and colleagues, we can never create a safe and supportive community in which our individual schools can thrive side by side.

*Name has been changed to protect identity

If you or someone you know would like to be interviewed for an H.O.R.J  story, please contact d.levine@nationalcenterforrestorativejustice.com