How can the circle manage power differences between participants?

Type of process: Circle

Conference Participants:

  • 2 Students – Shane and Brian
  • Student Advocate – Elizabeth
  • Professor – Paul
  • 2 Facilitators

Referring agent: Student Advocate

Factual Synopsis: A dispute over the grading of an assignment between a professor and two students expanded into an interpersonal conflict and rumors that damaged the students’ reputations within the department with other professors and their peers.


Shane and Brian approached the Student Advocate only after the conflict with their professor, Paul, had already been going on for several months. The conflict began when a group assignment that Shane and Brian had completed, which Paul had previously said was sufficient, was suddenly called into question by other students in the class who were building off Shane and Brian’s work in their own assignment. Paul decided the work was not acceptable and gave Shane and Brian only a day to re-do the assignment. They pulled two all-nighters re-doing the work, but still received a bad grade. In an email to the class, Paul expressed his disappointment with Shane and Brian’s work, which led to division and hard feelings in the class and embarrassment for Shane and Brian. Paul also informally shared what happened with other professors in the department. In another class, a professor told Shane that he wouldn’t get away with what he had done in Paul’s class there. The two students felt that their reputation in the small department was ruined and also felt that the grade was unfair and worried that it would negatively impact their ability to get into the Masters’ program. They prepared a lengthy report, detailing each incident in the ongoing conflict, and brought their complaint to the Student Advocate, who referred them to Restorative Justice.

Paul is a professor who really cares about his students and is passionate about his subject and creating an engaging and relevant learning environment for his students. He is also often disorganized and overwhelmed. When the co-facilitator and I met with Paul during the pre-conference, he regretted that there had been conflict over the assignment and his short fuse in the midst of a stressful class, but he did not seem to see the full impact of what had happened on Shane and Brian and their reputation, or how organization and clarity issues had contributed to the conflict.

Conflicts between students and faculty can be difficult because of the power difference that exists between a professor and a student. Often, the traditional education model only exacerbates this hierarchy. This difference in power can make it difficult for students to feel free to share their true experience and feelings in an incident of harm. In responding restoratively, it is important to be intentional about equalizing that power difference. That is largely accomplished through the circle process itself. Sitting on an equal plane, the use of the talking piece, equal time to speak, and equal respect and attention from all participating parties (modeled by the facilitator) all contribute to the equalizing experience. The ground rules and the facilitator’s confidence also contribute to the circle feeling like a safe space to share honestly. During the restorative circle meeting, the students and the professor had the opportunity to share their experience and hear from one another. They gained a better understanding of the other’s experience and Paul apologized for the stress and personal hardship caused to Shane and Brian.

Among the outcomes agreed upon were that the assignment would be re-graded by an outside professor, that Paul would look the structure of his class and assignments to identify areas of improvement regarding deadlines, clarity and balance of work, and that Paul will raise at the next department faculty meeting that the matter with Shane and Brian has been resolved and there are no hard feelings. He also planned to express to the faculty that there is a need in the department for a system and a culture that encourages prompt face-to-face resolution of conflict.

In the feedback questionnaire following the circle, Shane reported that he was surprised by the opportunity to understand the different perspectives of everyone involved and explained that now there is no longer repressed feelings and built up stress.

Below, you will find a general overview of the circle process the co-facilitator and I designed to respond to this issue. In any conflict, there is only so much you can do to anticipate what circle questions will be needed beforehand. As facilitator, you have to be ready to add another question round, or even suspend the structure of the circle, depending on what is needed to adequately surface impacts and needs and facilitate understanding. In this circle, I added question number three about misunderstandings in the moment because it felt like something the participants needed a chance to name.

Circle Guide

Welcome: Thank you all for being here and for taking the time to have this conversation. Explain the structure of the circle and the focus on impacts and repairs.

Ground Rules:

  • Listen and speak with respect
  • Respect confidentiality
  • Only one person will speak at a time
  • Any additional ground rules? Can we all agree to those ground rules?

Introduce Talking Piece

Round 1: What are your hopes for this meeting?

We are here to talk about a conflict around feedback and grading of an assignment that has also had an ongoing impact on feelings of comfort and ability to work together.

It is a long history, so there will be some different perspective on exactly how everything happened. We can all experience the same thing and have a different story (in the same way that today we will all experience this conversation but will leave with 6 slightly different stories). So today what we are focusing on is how each person has been affected, because impacts are always true to the individual and it is difficult for us to know exactly how another person was affected without hearing it from them. We will also be focusing on finding a way to repair the harm that has occurred and to move forward in a positive way.

Round 2: Speaking from your own personal perspective, how have you been affected? This can include personally, professionally, etc.

Round 3: In what ways have you felt misunderstood by the other person in this conflict?

Round 4: What is the main issue for you moving forward?

We are about to change gears now to talk about what needs to be done to make things right moving forward, but before I ask that, we want to ask a question that gets to the root of why you all work and study together.

Round 5: What is the thing you love most about landscape architecture?

In recognition that shared passion/path, how can we repair the harm from this incident so that you can work together?

Round 6: What needs to happen to put things right?

Talking piece is suspended and co-facilitator will guide this conversation until an agreement is reached. 

Round 7: Chance for a final word.


Building a Restorative University

Increasingly, restorative justice is being used as a response to discipline issues on college campuses with encouraging results. Research by sociologists David Karp and Casey Sacks has shown that compared to the traditional conduct model, restorative practices result in fewer appeals, less serious reoffending, higher participant satisfaction, and improvement in student learning.[1]

It is estimated that around 10% of American universities have introduced restorative policies. Articles in the New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the College Student Journal have commended the use of restorative approaches on campuses.

Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand has also seen positive results following the implementation of restorative justice to handle incidents of student misconduct. We began accepting referrals of student misconduct cases from Residential Life in February 2016 and the interest and enthusiasm for the process has grown through this first year of successful implementation. Through the use of restorative justice, the university has been able to avoid suspension, expulsion, and the eviction of students from university housing and has instead offered a process that more fully integrates students into the community.

Victoria University has also gone beyond the implementation of restorative justice as a response to discipline issues to begin to create a Restorative University that fosters positive relationships founded on mutual care, respect, responsibility, and honest communication at all levels.  A restorative community is one in which every member is valued and feels they belong, where all contribute to the common good and where conflict is handled in ways that promote accountability and respect. This restorative community is being built through the intentional implementation of restorative practices such as connection circles and the restorative conversation model that build, maintain and repair relationships within the university community throughout the year.

This effort to build a Restorative University began during the annual training for Residential Advisors in February 2016. The Chair of Restorative Justice staff was given the opportunity to provide an afternoon training that introduced the RAs to the restorative justice approach and also taught them how to use a connection circle model to build relationships among the residents on their floor and establish group norms. The RAs were also taught how to use the connection circle to respond to behaviors that impact the entire community such as vandalism, messiness and noise. The connection circle is facilitated using a “talking piece” so that everyone has an equal opportunity to speak.

One RA sent the following report back after using the Connection Circle tool with her hall. She describes using a pair of scissors as a talking piece.

“I held a circle meeting with my floor of residents for our first floor meeting and it was WONDERFUL. After some gentle and funny ice breakers, I introduced the idea and started it off with a pair of scissors that hadn’t left my hands for the last week in preparing the decorations for the floor for them. I explained the scissors symbolized my dedication to the floor and the open space I wanted to create for the sharing of ideas and skills. I set the intention of the circle as a discussion of our values/rules that are important to make everyone feel at home. The first few people passed them on without saying much, but once they got talking it was awesome! I was writing them up on a piece of card to keep on the wall and it was things like ‘Smiling at everyone,’ ‘Celebrating peoples’ birthdays’ as well as rules about cleanliness and noise. Really such a great way to start the year!” –Residential Advisor

As 2016 continued, we offered a Connection Circle training for Residential Life professional staff and encouraged training participants to use the process with staff groups, RAs, and students. We also provided training on Restorative Conversations for resolving one-on-one conflict. We received very positive feedback for these trainings as participants began integrating restorative approaches into their life at the university.

“Building restorative practice both in daily conversations and within Hall communities is extremely important. We need to move away from disciplinary and blame to mending / fixing what is broken.” – Training Participant

As the number of referrals for restorative justice conferences continued to increase, we saw a need to form a team of restorative justice facilitators who could be assigned to facilitate cases after they were vetted by the Chair of Restorative Justice staff. In September 2016, we trained a group of 16 Victoria University staff members in Restorative Justice facilitation. The group that went through the training is highly skilled and very passionate about restorative approaches. We are now entering the 2017 school year with our capacity to expand implementation greatly increased. The restorative justice facilitator training also received high praise from participants.

“[My favourite part of the training was] the intelligence and skill of the facilitators, who delivered a top class programme that had me gently captivated from the beginning until the end… Realizing where our group arrived to at the end of three days was testament to exceptional, considered and meticulous planning in taking us on this RJ journey.  The attitude of the facilitators set a tone of respect and confidence right from pre-training communication… I felt fortunate from the beginning to be part of the group and felt a pang of sadness when it concluded.  I have experienced training where I am ready for it to be over by the end, however in this case at the end it left me wanting to know more.” – Training Participant

As the momentum has grown within Residential Life, interest has has quickly spread to Counseling and the Wellness Team. We are in the process of setting up training offerings with these groups as we move into the 2017 school year.

Interest in the work being done at Victoria University has also spread to other universities. In October 2016, my colleagues and I traveled to the University of Newcastle in Australia to provide a restorative justice facilitator training for members of their staff and to support and advise implementation of the process. We have already received further interest from other universities in New Zealand and Australia.

It is clear that the growth of the Restorative University model is filling a much-needed gap for campus communities. We know that student behavior, learning and happiness are grounded in feelings of belonging and of knowing that they are valued as individuals within a connected and supportive community. This feeling of belonging and connection is only accomplished when we devote time and energy to intentionally building, maintaining and repairing relationships. Restorative practices offer a concrete tools and a grounding philosophy to build these thriving communities.

[1] David R. Karp & Casey Sacks, “Student Conduct, Restorative Justice, and Student Development,” Contemporary Justice Review 17/2 (2014), pp. 154-72.