Q&A: Training Restorative Justice Facilitators to Understand Structural Inequities

Q: How can I help the facilitators I train in my program to understand the structural dimensions of crime? I worry that they are too focused on the interpersonal dimensions of crime and are ignoring the larger harms and roots of conflict in race-, class-, and gender-based systemic inequities.

A: This is a common issue in restorative justice programs around the world and one that is important to work hard to address. Fania DavisAnita Wadhwa, and David Dyck (among others) offer some helpful resources.

This shortcoming in facilitators’ understanding is due in part to the fact that practitioners are generally not trained to think about restorative justice work within a systemic, structural frame of reference, and therefore, by default, tend to focus solely on personal responsibility without understanding the structural roots of the conflict or wrongdoing.

Practitioners need to be trained not only in interpersonal communication skills, but also the ability to recognize and address the way in which crimes and conflict reflect larger systemic problems.

One of Dyck’s recommendations is to teach facilitators theoretical models that will help them to grasp this larger issue. For example, Maire Dugan’s Nested Theory of Conflict provides a framework for understanding interrelated types of conflict in a community. Here is a game from www.RestorativeTeachingTools.com to help your facilitators understand this model.


United Nations Roundtable on Restorative Pedagogy

Last month, I was honored to be invited to be part of a roundtable on Restorative Pedagogy hosted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Here is a description of the roundtables from the UNODC press release.

“From criminology, psychology and political studies degrees, to university courses for the social workers, lawyers and schoolteachers of the future, restorative justice and restorative practice increasingly appear on higher education curricula. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Education for Justice (E4J) initiative recognises the importance of restorative justice, and has developed a module to promote and strengthen its teaching in higher education institutions globally.

Further recent developments in restorative justice teaching in higher education include the publication of The Little Book of Restorative Teaching Tools (Pointer, et al., 2020) and a corresponding website, and efforts by academics in Ireland and Australia to encourage their colleagues from around the world and across different disciplines to share restorative justice syllabi.

While many collaborations and discussions focus on restorative justice research, few seek to bring the field together around its teaching in universities. In light of this, Dr. Wendy O’Brien (UNODC, E4J) and Dr. Ian Marder (Maynooth University Department of Law) co-organised a series of three online roundtables to enable those who teach restorative justice and restorative practice in higher education to learn from each other’s experiences of doing so.

These roundtables took place in mid-May 2020, involving around 70 academics from 30 countries. Each session began with a welcome from Dr. O’Brien who introduced participants to the tertiary component of E4J and the University Module Series on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. Next, Jee Aei (Jamie) Lee from the UNODC Justice Section shared information about the publication of the revised UNODC Handbook on Restorative Justice Programmes. The roundtables were then dedicated to discussions on different themes related to teaching restorative justice in universities. These discussions were chaired by Dr. Marder who used restorative practices to give everyone present an opportunity to speak.”



As School Contracts with Police are Called into Question, Consider Restorative Justice

We are in a time of immense change in our country and one thing that is being reconsidered is the role of police and punitive sanctions more broadly in schools. Research has shown that the presence of police and punitive sanctions in schools often drives students —particularly minority and poor students—out of school, resulting in a “school-to-prison” pipeline (Losen 2015).

Restorative justice is a non-punitive and relationship-based approach to responding to misbehavior and harm that encourages accountability and the reparation of relationships. It also works proactively to generate a positive school climate where students feel safe, respected, and heard. This translates into a myriad of positive outcomes for students and teachers alike.

A 2020 study summarizing the most recent two decades of quantitative studies regarding the effectiveness of restorative justice in schools found that restorative justice implementation has the following impacts (Darling-Hammond et al 2020).

  • A decrease in harmful behaviors (i.e. violence).
  • A decrease in exclusionary discipline (i.e. suspensions and expulsions). Exclusionary discipline is associated with a large range of negative outcomes for students including dropping out of school and being incarcerated, so a decrease in exclusionary discipline results in other improved outcomes for students.
  • A decrease in suspensions of Black, Latinx, low-income, and special needs students.
  • A lower rate of recidivism.
  • A reduction in the racial discipline gap.
  • Increased attendance.
  • Increased graduation rates.
  • Improved school climate.
  • Increased social-emotional growth and position development of students.
  • Higher levels of school connectedness and positive peer relations.
  • Increase in students’ feelings of safety.

I strongly urge school districts around the country to consider implementing a comprehensive restorative justice program to ensure school safety and improve students’ experiences of school climate and feelings of belonging.


Darling-Hammond, S., Fronius, T. A., Sutherland, H., Guckenburg, S., Petrosino, A., & Hurley, N. (2020). “Effectiveness of Restorative Justice in US K-12 Schools: A Review of Quantitative Research.” Contemporary School Psychology.

Losen, D. (Ed.). (2015). Closing the school discipline gap: equitable remedies for excessive exclusion. Teachers College Press.

Q&A Facilitating Circles Online

Question: I want to continue to hold circles with my students/staff during this time of social distancing. I feel we need the connection now more than ever! How can I facilitate a circle through video chat without the ability to actually sit in a circle together or pass a talking piece?

Answer: I agree! Cultivating meaningful connections is more important now than ever before. Luckily, there are a number of things you can do to adapt the circle process to the online format. Here are a few things to consider.

  1. Rather than passing one talking piece around the circle, each person can bring their own talking piece to hold when they share. Giving each person the chance to share their talking piece and why they selected it is another opportunity for relationship building. 
  2. Because you aren’t sitting in a circle, it isn’t automatically clear whose turn it is to speak next. You can address this issue by drawing a circle ahead of time and placing the names of participants around the circle. Share the image with the participants before the process so that they know the speaking order. Or, you can also ask each person to say the name of the person they are “passing” the talking piece to after they share. 
  3. You may need to add additional norms or ground rules such as to “mute” when you aren’t speaking, how to indicate that you are “passing” the talking piece without sharing, and what to do when kids, pets, etc. show up in the process. 

For an example of an online circle plan with processes and norms specific to the online context, check out this resource from Loyola University Chicago School of Law or this guide for a virtual circle of support in response to social distancing from Kay Pranis. 

I would love to hear the other solutions readers have identified for facilitating circles online. Please share your ideas


Strengths-Based Restorative Justice Agreements: Using Art to Make Things Right

Restorative justice practitioners place a great deal of emphasis on being strengths-based. This means identifying and supporting an individual’s assets: the positive passions, skills, interests, and connections that make them unique.

Taking the time to identify these strengths with participants has many benefits. It helps to combat feelings of stigmatizing shame by showing that you see the individual as a full person, not just through the lens of the one harmful event you are discussing. It also helps participants to see and appreciate their own strengths, which has a great impact on their perception of self and often positively impacts their future behavior. Knowing participant’s strengths and interests also allows for asset-based agreement ideas to emerge. How can a responsible party use their strengths to repair harm and make things right?

Often, participants strengths include creative talents such as art, writing, music, or performance. This can result in some outstanding contract items as responsible parties draw on those strengths to repair harm.

One teenage responsible party worked towards his aspiration to become a rap artist while repairing the harm from his offense. He created a 4-verse rap that encouraged others to stay out of trouble. Here’s the first verse:

When you get involved with beer, some may begin to cheer. Now dear.

Under the influence you will feel fear, but you’ve gotta have the mind gear, when it comes near.

But things might begin to look sincere, put it all away with smear and dance to this snare.

Instead, let it get through to you like a spear, and shape of a sphere, but you control your own life so put it in clutch and steer.

You become sad and stare, pouring tears. But once it is all clear, it seems like that is the time everything good to you disappears.

You can struggle getting a career, can’t even be a cashier, and a lot of kids get in trouble with the law each year.

We’ve got to form a frontier, to be at the level of premier.

Another young responsible party wrote a children’s book on chinchilla care to repair the harm from an animal abuse case. The last paragraph said:

Now you know how to care for your little fluffy ball.

If you have any questions, just give your vet a call.

Please love your chinny and they will love you.

These sweet gentle animals need a mommy or daddy and that can be you!

A young adult was referred for spray painting a public building with politically charged messages. One of his contract items was to express what he was trying to express through graffiti in his slam poetry. He recorded a video of himself performing his slam poem and posted it online.

A young mother struggling with guilt chose to explore her artistic talents as a way of repairing harm to herself and expressing her love for her child.


These artistic contract items allow responsible parties to reflect on the experience, repair harm, and also grow their own strengths and talents.

Are you looking for ways to practice encouraging greater creativity in ideas for repairing harm? Check out the game Out of the Box at www.RestorativeTeachingTools.com.

Tips and Tricks for Maintaining Facilitator Neutrality in Pre-Conferences

The pre-conference is, in many ways, the most important part of the restorative justice process. A bad conference, more often than not, is the fault of poor pre-conferencing.

Pre-conferencing refers to the individual meetings that the facilitators hold with the responsible party and harmed party and their respective support people prior to bringing the parties together for the restorative justice conference. During the pre-conference, the facilitators hear the story of what happened from each participant, seek to understand the impacts or harms that have been experienced, and support each party in identifying their current needs and what would begin to repair the harm. It is also an important time for the facilitators to build relationship and trust with participants. These feelings of trust will ensure that each party feels comfortable engaging fully in the process, knowing that they are safe and that the ground rules that ensure respectful conversation will be upheld. The pre-conference is also a chance for the facilitators to explain the restorative justice process in greater detail and answer any questions and discuss any concerns the participants may have.

It is important to the success of the process for restorative justice facilitators to be neutral. All participants must feel equally supported and heard. If one party feels that a facilitator is “taking the side” of another participant, it won’t be possible to build the trust and sense of safety necessary for the process to be successful.

Maintaining this neutrality can be difficult during the pre-conference phase. During the pre-conferences, the facilitators are having individual conversations with each participant, hearing and empathizing with their account of what happened.

Many of the things that you would say to a friend when hearing their account of a painful experience in order to support them are not appropriate in the role of facilitator.

For example, as a friend hearing the story, you might say:

“Wow. I can’t believe he did that.”

“What was she thinking?”

“Oh my god! That is horrible!”

“You’re right. It totally sounds like an overreaction.”

These affirmations can feel like a good way to build relationship and trust with each party, but ultimately will compromise your neutrality in the process.

On the other side of the coin, sometimes facilitator feel a desire to correct what they are hearing from one party in an effort to open up the possibility of the parties seeing each other’s views and moving towards reconciliation.

For example, a facilitator trying to correct might say:

“Have you considered what he might have been going through at the time that led him to commit this crime?”

“Well yes, but this was especially hard for her because of her divorce and the custody battle.”

“Keep an open mind. He is a really good guy.”

Often, as a facilitator, you will have information about what one party was going through, what led to the crime, or what their experience was like that you know will ultimately be helpful for the other participants to hear. However, it is not your responsibility to share that information or to attempt to humanize the parties to each other during the pre-conference. That healing and transformation will take place during the conference so long as you build the necessary trust and understanding of the process during the pre-conference and gain a good understanding of the open-ended questions you will need to ask during the conference in order to help each party hear the story and perspective of the others.

So, what can you say instead?

The underlying need here is to show the responsible party, harmed party, or support person you are talking with that you are listening deeply and that you care. Feeling heard is a great way to build trust and facilitate further open communication.

Here are a few ways to help participants feel heard during the pre-conference without compromising your neutrality as facilitator.

Use Reflective Statements

A reflective statement is a statement that reflects the content, emotion, and/or meaning of what the speaker has shared. It is a great way to show you are listening and to give the other person a chance to clarify if there is a misunderstanding.

Here is an example:

Speaker says: “Ever since then, things with my mom really aren’t good. Like, she doesn’t trust me to hang out with my friend or do anything, so we fight a lot.”

Reflective Statement: “It sounds like the damaged trust with your mom is really impacting your relationship with her.”

Using a reflective statement allows you to build trust and relationship through demonstrating that you are listening and care about their experience and emotions without sharing a personal opinion or judgement of the situation. Reflective statements also often prompt the other party to share more about their story or experience, so can often be used instead of another follow-up question.

Would you like to practice making reflective statements? Check out the activities Mirror Mirror and Shovel Face on www.RestorativeTeachingTools.com.

Ask Open-Ended Follow-Up Questions

The best way to show you care and to build relationship is to show that you want to listen to someone and care to learn more about their experience. They best way to do this is through asking questions! The best questions are open-ended (can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”).

Try using:

  • What…?
  • How…?
  • Why…?
  • Tell me more about…

On www.RestorativeTeachingTools.com, there are several great games and activities that will help you practice forming good open-ended questions on the spot. Check out Curiosity Did Not Harm the Cat and Shovel Face.

Seek to Understand their Needs and Reflect those Needs

A central goal of the restorative justice process is identifying needs. What unmet needs led to the harmful behavior and how could those need be met in a way that does not cause harm? What needs have arisen from the offense? As you ask open-ended questions and make reflective statements, listen for the speaker’s needs and reflect them back. It will help participants to feel heard and to identify their own needs moving forward.

For a great conceptual model for understanding needs, check out the Māori framework for health and wellbeing, Te Whare Tapa Whā. Build the House is a great activity for exploring this framework and can be found at www.RestorativeTeachingTools.com.

Restorative Justice and #MeToo

The New York Times recently published an opinion piece titled #MeToo Doesn’t Always Have to Mean PrisonIt is an excellent article that highlights the benefits of making a restorative justice response available to those who have experienced sexual harm. As the article notes,

“#MeToo rightly emphasizes victims’ healing and accountability for the people who harmed them. All too often, the prosecutorial route achieves neither. Restorative justice may be a way to achieve both.”

I highly recommend reading the full article! There has been a great deal of discussion around restorative responses to sexual harm recently. As a facilitator, I have seen the positive impact a restorative justice process can have, for both the harmed party and the responsible party, in the wake of an assault. It is certainly not always the best response, and should be facilitated with the upmost care and responsiveness to the parties’ needs. However, when done well, it can provide a significant step towards healing and preventing further incidents of harm.

To give an idea of what this can look like, I wanted to share an old case study of a restorative justice response to a sexual assault in the university context. As always, all names and identifying details have been changed.

Type of process: Restorative Justice Conference

Conference Participants:

  • Impacted Party (Victim) – Cindy
  • Cindy’s Support Person- Amber
  • Responsibly Party (Offender) – Luke
  • Luke’s Support Person – Zane
  • Head of Hall – Ray
  • 2 Facilitators

Possible Criminal Charges: Sexual Assault

Referring agent: University Residential Life staff

Factual Synopsis: Luke sexually assaulted Cindy.


The use of restorative justice for cases of sexual assault has been an area of ongoing debate within the field. Some practitioners feel that the power difference present in cases of sexual violence mean that it is unfit for a restorative justice response. In New Zealand, Project Restore has made great strides in adapting the restorative justice process to make it safe for those who have experienced sexual harm. In the US, the Campus PRISM Project is also doing great work promoting restorative initiatives to address sexual misconduct on university campuses. The use of restorative justice for cases of sexual violence has shown positive results, aiding in the healing journey of victims, increasing offender understanding and accountability for wrongdoing, and preventing reoccurrence.

Sexual violence is devastatingly prevalent, and many victims choose not to report incidents of sexual harm because the investigation and court process can cause so much additional harm. Additionally, because it is often people known to the victim who commit sexual violence, some victims may be reluctant to report the crime. They often do not want to the offender to suffer the punitive consequences that may negatively impact the rest of his/her life. Particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement, there is growing support for the option of restorative justice to be made available to victims of sexual violence. For some victims, what they really want after an experience of sexual assault is for the offender to know how they were affected and for it to never happen again to them or other women.

It was the second week of the university school year when Cindy came back to the residential hall from drinking with her friends. She did not want to go to sleep yet and her friend Luke invited her to come hang out in his room. They sat down on his bed. Luke was sober and Cindy was highly intoxicated. Eventually, Luke started touching Cindy underneath her underwear. Cindy said it took her a moment to realize what was happening, but once she did she got up and left the room. The next morning, Luke texted Cindy to say he was sorry if anything happened last night that she didn’t want to happen.

Cindy tried to put the incident out of her head over the coming weeks, but it weighed on her. She struggled with depression and self-harming and found it hard to focus. She had seen a counselor, but still was struggling to heal. She avoided Luke in the hall, but lived in fear of running into him. It was in conversation with a friend weeks later that she realized that what had happened to her was sexual assault. Her friend, Amber, encouraged her to tell the RA what happened. The RA then reported the incident to the Head of Hall, Ray.

When the Head of Hall met with Cindy, they talked through what happened and her options moving forward. They could contact the police and file charges against Luke for sexual assault. Cindy did not want to do that, she expressed that what she really wanted was for Luke to know how awful it had been for her and to make sure he never did it again. Ray explained the restorative justice option and Cindy said she would like to meet with the facilitators to learn more. Ray also met with Luke, who said he would be willing to participate in the restorative justice process. In the mean time, Ray moved Luke onto another far away floor so that Cindy wouldn’t have to worry about seeing him.

Cindy’s friend Amber came with her to meet with my co-facilitator and I. They told us the story of what happened and Cindy shook and cried, saying again that she just needed Luke to know how much what he had done had affected her. Amber was very angry with Luke and said she had often felt like hurting him when she saw him. More than anything, she wanted her friend to feel better. After hearing the story and the devastating effect the assault had on her life, we explained in detail what a restorative justice process would look like and answered Cindy’s questions. In the end, Cindy decided that she wanted to go forward with the process.

Luke came to the pre-conference with a new friend, Zane, as his support. Many of his friends from the first few weeks of the year had been unwilling to talk with him since word of what he had done to Cindy had spread. Luke was suffering from what many perpetrators of sexual assault are experiencing in the #MeToo era; he had been exiled for his behavior.

There is, I think, a natural urge to exile someone who has caused this sort of harm. It is part of how we have traditionally expressed that we find a behavior abhorrent and will not tolerate it in our community. In a tight community like a residential hall, it is also likely a way of showing the victim that she is loved and cared for, even if the exile isn’t what she wanted. It is an incredibly positive thing that in the #MeToo era, more and more stories of sexual assault are being told. Increasingly though, it is clear that if we were to continue exiling the men who have committed sexual violence, we would soon have very few left. We need to find a way to pursue justice, while also prioritizing healing and reintegrating for all parties, and above all else, educating men about consent and shifting cultural narratives and gender roles so that they encourage respectful sexual relationships. We also need to fix porn. Particularly in the university context, it is increasingly apparent to me how many of men’s dangerous views and behaviors in regards to sex may originate in the portrayal of sex in porn, which is rarely consensual, and often one of their only sources of information. Rarely do boys and young men have the opportunity for honest, open conversation about how to be respectful sexual partners.

The impulse to exile also causes significant harm to the offender. Luke said that since the word had spread about what he did to Cindy, he had been severely depressed and had considered suicide. He said again and again that what he had done is not who he is or who he wants to be. He spoke about how he wished he could take back that night, how he couldn’t believe what he had done. We arranged for Luke to meet a couple times with a counselor before moving forward with the restorative justice meeting so that he could work through some of the pain he had experienced and be ready to hear how Cindy had been affected. After a few meetings, we spoke with Luke again and he said he was ready to move forward.

When we brought Cindy, Luke, Amber, Zane and Ray together for the restorative justice conference, there was a feeling of extreme tension and nervousness in the air. Luke was very remorseful as he told the story of what had happened, but it was clear that he didn’t understand the full impact his actions had on Cindy. Cindy cried as she spoke about her experience that night and her struggles since then, letting it all out. Amber spoke about her anger with Luke and how she felt scared when she heard about him texting another girl who was also a friend of hers. In one powerful moment, Luke explained that he was only texting that girl because he had been worried about her getting home safe because she was walking around late at night alone. Cindy interrupted him crying as she said, “So you were worried about the exact same thing happening to her that you did to me? … We don’t need you to walk us home, women are fine by ourselves and we have each other.” The message was clear and powerful: women don’t need protection; all they need is for men to cease the violence against them and to treat them with respect.

The conversation about impacts continued for a long time. The participants had a chance to ask each other questions, to explain the extent of the devastation that had resulted from that night. There were many moments of silence as the powerful realizations that unfolded settled in. Luke apologized many times for what he had done and was visibly impacted by what he learned in the process.

When we moved to talk about ideas for repair, Cindy said she really had just wanted the apology and to move forward. She said she wanted Luke to feel like he could go to the dining hall and live his life, she didn’t want him exiled, though she also didn’t want to specifically interact with him in the future. They agreed to give each other space. Amber said she still felt a lot of anger, though it had lessened a bit, but was happy to do whatever Cindy needed. Ray suggested that Luke continue seeing the counselor to examine some of his thought patterns that had led to the assault. Ray also suggested that Luke read a book about consent and said that he would read it with him, so that they could meet each week to talk about the book and what they had learned. The whole circle agreed with these ideas and felt that it was a good way to ensure nothing like this happened again. Luke had also come with an apology letter for Cindy, which he gave her, saying that she could choose if she wanted to read it or not.

In the final circle, each participant expressed how grateful he or she was for the opportunity to talk through what happened and that they felt better moving forward. Comparing the feeling in the room to the beginning of the conference, there was still certainly a strain between the two parties, but there was a sense of a weight having been lifted. A significant step towards healing and repair had been taken.

Restorative justice will certainly not be the best option for every case of sexual assault, but it should be an option. Like Cindy, some victims will want and need the opportunity to talk directly to the person who harmed them, in a safe and controlled space, to make sure that person understands the full extent of the harm caused, and never does it again. It is a process that honors and respects the experiences of all participants, rather than tearing them apart and doubting them like often happens to victims in sexual assault trials. It is a process that can transform and reintegrate offenders, rather than exiling them. It is a process that pursues justice and healing in equal measure, and for all involved. It is a process with so much to give at this point in human history.