What can you do when a Restorative Justice Conference isn’t an appropriate response?

  • Type of process: Connection Circle
  • Conference Participants:
    • Hall Managers- Joy and Ellie
    • Returning RAs- Beth, Sorren, Larry
    • 2 Facilitators
  • Referring agent: University Residential Life staff
  • Narrative:

This case began as a restorative justice referral after the Hall Managers (Joy and Ellie) were informed by members of their RAs staff that three of the RAs (Sorren, Larry, and another male RA) had seen the information sheets from interviews with the RAs who had applied to return to work in the hall again the following year. Beth was one of the RAs whose information had been seen and felt that her privacy and sense of trust in her fellow RAs had been seriously violated by the incident. After meeting with all involved parties, it was clear that there was confusion within the group as to whether seeing this information was intentional or a mistake. We were able to surface some miscommunications and misunderstandings. Ultimately, the three RAs who had seen the information were taking responsibility for accidentally seeing the sheet when they opened a folder to look for a timesheet, but said as soon as they realized what it was, they closed the folder. As facilitators, we made the decision that moving forward with a restorative justice conference would not be appropriate for this case.

However, it was clear through our pre-conference conversations with the involved parties, particularly the three RAs who would be returning to the hall next year (Beth, Sorren and Larry), that there was a lack of trust and clear communication within the group. Because we are endeavoring to create a Restorative University by utilizing restorative approaches to resolve all conflicts, not just those that are a good fit for restorative justice, my co-facilitator (Haley) and I began brainstorming what we could do to help repair the broken trust and relationships within the group. Our goal was for the group of returner RAs and the two Hall Managers to enter the new school year with clarity, open communication and trust.

In order to facilitate this conversation, we decided to use a connection circle. During a connection circle, the facilitator passes around a talking piece and each person in the circle has an equal opportunity to speak and to answer the question posed by the facilitator. For connection circles addressing a certain issues, there are typically multiple rounds that mirror the central questions of restorative justice: how have you been impacted by what has happened and what can we do now to make things right?

I introduced the purpose of the connection circle to the group as an opportunity to come together as next year’s leaders who will be responsible for creating the hall culture for the RAs and residents next year. I said the circle would be a chance to raise any issues that have come up this year and to form a plan together about what type of team they would like to be next year. I explained that Haley and I would be facilitating so that Joy and Ellie could fully participate in the conversation and that Haley would be taking notes so that everyone else could devote their full attention to the process.

Next, I facilitated a conversation through the following rounds of questions.

Round 1: What are your hopes for the meeting today?

Round 2: What concerns or worries do you have moving into next year?

Round 3: What do you personally need in order for this to be an effective/supportive staff group?

Round 4: What specifically can we do to create a positive staff culture and how will we hold each other accountable?

Round 5: What have you really appreciated about the team this year that you would like to carry forward into next year?

Through these rounds of questions, the participants were able to talk honestly about issues that had come up during the year and were open with each other about some frustrations that had been boiling under the surface. They were also able to identify similarities in the type of community they wanted to create and what they needed from their fellow RAs. They all prioritized trust, open and honest communication, and also fun! Together, they were able to agree on guiding values and also a few concrete things they would do next year to build the community they wanted. Haley recorded these ideas and wrote into an agreement for the group to take away from the conversation. There were moments of tension and difficult conversation towards the beginning, but by the end of the process, the group was laughing together about memories of late-night RA trips to K-Mart and dreaming up plans for next year.

For me, the process as a reminder that even when the restorative justice process isn’t a good fit, there is still a way to use the restorative tools and the focus on impacts and making things right to repair relationships fractured by conflict and misunderstanding. The process took about an hour, which is not a small commitment on the part of 4 professional staff members and 3 busy students. Still, I have no doubt that the hour we invested in building those relationships and clarity and trust within the group will have a positive ripple effect on how they work together next year and how they approach conflicts that arise in the future.

Mock Restorative Justice Conference

My colleague Haley and I recently created a video of a mock restorative justice conference as a tool for our university trainings. If you are interested in getting a taste of what a restorative justice conference looks like, please check it out. 

A few things to know before watching:

  1. This is an abbreviated version of the restorative justice process. Most real life conferences are about one hour or longer.
  2. In a real conference, the participants would be seated in a circle on an equal plane. The modified circle was necessarily in order to successfully film from a single angle.
  3. Prior to a restorative justice conference, the facilitators meet with each involved party (victim, offender, etc.) for a pre-conference meeting. This meeting is a chance to review the process, practice the questions that will be asked, and build relationships and trust with the participants. Before the conference you see in the video could take place, the facilitators would have first met with each of the involved parities individually.


On Thursday night at 8pm, Sarah was in her room working on a paper for her Anthropology class that was due the next day. She went next door to ask her neighbor (Jill) who is in the same class a question. When she returned to her room 15 minutes later, her laptop and charger were missing. She immediately called her RA (Harry). Harry filed a report about the missing laptop including that it had a green “Tree Hugger” sticker on the front. Sarah’s paper wasn’t backed up so Sarah also sent an email to her professor explaining what happened.

A week later, Harry was doing room checks on the floor and happened to see a laptop with a green “Tree Hugger” sticker on it on Tom’s desk. He asked Tom where he got the laptop and Tom stumbled over his words for a while before admitting that he had taken it from Sarah’s room. Harry returned the laptop to Sarah and reported what had happened to the Hall Manager (Laura). Because Tom had taken responsibility for stealing the laptop, Laura decided to give Tom and Sarah the option of Restorative Justice. Both agreed to participate in the process.

Character Descriptions:

Tom: Tom is a first-year student studying graphic design. He really enjoys drawing, photography, and photo-editing. He is outgoing and has a big social circle. Tom’s parents gave him a laptop as a graduation gift at the end of college. Then, riding his skateboard across campus, he accidentally fell and damaged the laptop. He hasn’t been able to turn it on and doesn’t have the money to fix it. He has been too embarrassed to tell his parents because he has always been considered the trouble child compared to his older sister.

Sarah: Sarah is a first-year student studying anthropology. She is a straight-A student and involved in the environmental club. She tends to feel a lot of anxiety about school work and a need to be perfect. She was shy growing up and is trying to overcome that at university and make friends.

Harry: This is Harry’s second year as an RA (third year of university). He really enjoys the opportunity to support first-year students and puts a lot of energy into building a fun and supportive community on the floor.

Laura: Laura is the Hall Manager and has been very busy this year with a group of first-year students who like to party a lot. She is feeling a bit over her head trying to manage everything. She has a great group of RAs supporting her and trusts them completely.