Sustained Restorative Dialogue – Understanding and Preventing Sexual Harm on Campus

Over the past two years, Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) has taken significant steps towards becoming a Restorative University. This has involved the use of restorative processes both in a reactive way, as a response to misconduct or incidents of harm, and a proactive way, in order to build community, enhance belonging and mutual responsibility, and identify shared community norms.

The “Sustained Restorative Dialogue” method was piloted in July 2018 as a proactive restorative process to hold difficult conversation about important community issues. The inaugural dialogue explored the issue of sexual harm and harassment on campus. It was a “sustained” dialogue in that it was run over four sessions with the same participants. It was a “restorative” dialogue in that the conversation moved in sequential sessions through the main steps of a restorative analysis – What is happening? What are the impacts? What is needed to make things right? The aim of the dialogue was to explore the broader climate that gives rise to sexual harm in the campus setting and beyond and to explore possible solutions.

The report below includes background information, the circle outlines for each session, feedback from participants, recruitment processes, and lessons learned. Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions!


In September 2018, the group met again to continue the discussion of what is needed to make things right in our university community, based on the depth of understanding gained through the dialogue process. A list of their recommendations were compiled in the document below and submitted to the university for consideration.

Recommendations for VUW from SRD

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.

How Does Restorative Justice Help Offenders Avoid a Downward Spiral?

Type of process: Community Group Conference

Conference Participants:

  • Offender- Micah
  • Hall Manager- Lauren
  • RAs/Impacted Parties- John, Paul and Beth
  • 2 Facilitators

Disciplinary Measure Pending: Being evicted from the Residential Hall

Referring agent: University Residential Life staff

Factual Synopsis: While suffering from extreme stress in his school, work, and relationship life, Micah drank to the point of severe intoxication in his dorm room. While intoxicated, he broke his window attempting to illegally access a balcony, was extremely aggressive towards a neighbor and volatile with RAs, and ultimately tried to jump out the window. Police were called and took him to the station for a mental health assessment.

Note: The neighbor who was involved opted to not participate in the Restorative Justice process. Restorative Justice is voluntary for all participants.


Micah told the co-facilitator and me that he takes pride in his ability to do it all. Before this incident, Micah was working 35 hours per week at two jobs on top of being a full-time student studying architecture. During the pre-conference, Micah described that on a normal day, he would go to classes, get done at about 3pm, go to work, work until 11pm, eat dinner and then start his homework, leaving him only a couple hours to sleep before he got up to do it all again. When it felt like he was losing control of something, like when his grades started to slip, he would respond by piling more on. He was good at his jobs. His manager at the supermarket promoted him and gave him more hours, so when school wasn’t going well, he threw himself into more work. He was operating like this for a while, on very little sleep, ignoring the issues with his school work and piling more on to not deal with it when he found out his long distance girlfriend cheated on him. Micah described it as a sort of breaking point. Once his personal life was in shambles too, he just couldn’t take it.

To deal with the stress, Micah started drinking. He drank a few bottles of wine alone in his room. He attempted to reach out to a friend to talk, but she was busy with school work, so he continued to drink. Eventually, he tried to get out on the balcony by crawling through his window and in the process, accidentally put his head through the glass. At that point, he went down to tell the RA on duty (Beth) about the broken glass. Beth could immediately see that Micah was not doing well. He was angry with his next door neighbor and was screaming at him. Eventually, both Beth and the neighbor were in the room and Micah was physically blocking them from leaving. He continued screaming at the neighbor and was highly emotional. Beth texted another RA (Paul) for help. After Paul arrived, Beth and Paul were able to get the neighbor out of the room. What followed was over an hour of emotional volatility with Micah screaming, crying, and disclosing information about his girlfriend who had cheated. Paul and Beth were unable to get Micah to settle down or go to sleep so fearing for his safety and the safety of others, called the Hall Manager Lauren who advised them to call the police as well. Another RA who was in the hall that night, John, also arrived to help escort the police to the room.

The police initially decided that Micah wasn’t a threat and exited the room along with Lauren, Beth, and Paul. John was in the room alone with Micah when all the sudden he stood up, looked out the window and said, “John, I’m going to jump out this window and there is nothing you can do to stop me.” John called out for the police who came into the room and after a physical struggle, were eventually able to handcuff Micah and take him to the station for a mental health assessment.

Micah was given a room outside of the hall to stay in and temporarily banned from the hall while arrangements were made for the restorative justice meeting. He was also instructed to begin meeting regularly with the Student Support Coordinator (Jenny). Jenny helped Micah to get extensions for his assignments from his professors so that he was able to take some time to recover from the breakdown.

Throughout the pre-conference and conference, it was clear that Micah has some more serious mental health issues that contributed to his inability to adequately track the conversation and his manic behavior. Mental health concerns can add a difficult component to restorative justice because the process is not therapy and cannot provide the full services that the offender needs. What is important is to remember that behavior communicates needs. In this case, Micah’s breakdown signals a need for greater emotional and well-being support through regular meetings with a counselor. Therefore, when we talked about what needed to happen next to repair the harms and make things right, the first thing that was suggested was for Micah to get the counselling support required in order to not have a breakdown like this again. He ended up agreeing to a weekly meeting with a counselor in addition to the weekly meeting with the Jenny, the Student Support Coordinator and expressed that both of these meetings would be very helpful.

Restorative justice cannot operate without access to other resources to help fulfill the needs that so often fuel crime. The gift of restorative justice is that the process is able to surface those needs so that they can be addressed and so that the response to the crime or rule violation does not cause further harm. In Micah’s case, if this incident had happened last year before the University began using Restorative Justice, Micah would have been immediately evicted from the Residential Hall with no further contact or support. He would have been cut off from his community of friends, would not have the encouragement or structure to pursue counselling, and would need to find a new place to live. With the overwhelm Micah was already facing, my guess is that these added stressors would have resulted in a downward spiral and further breakdowns.

We see this so often in the mainstream justice system. An offender commits a crime to fulfill a need (whether that is for food, or safety, or mental health support, or clothing for an interview, or respect) and often the crime is a last resort and signals that parts of the person’s life are in serious disarray. Instead of relieving the stressors that led to the crime by working to identify the needs behind the behavior, the criminal justice system often just adds to the stress with fines, curfews, loss of privileges or incarceration. Rather than finding a way to redress the harm, further harm is caused.

Instead, in Micah’s case, he was provided with a different place to live near his friends, but away from the room with the window that could access the balcony, he decided to leave both jobs and focus on his school work, he began attending weekly counselling and support meetings to get the help he needs, and he has committed to giving back positively to the residential hall.

What Impact Does Restorative Justice Have on University Dorm Community?

  • Type of Process: Community Group Conference
  • Conference Participants:
    • Offender –Ron
    • Offender Support/Impacted Parties- Ron’s best friend (Shane) and ex-girlfriend (Lizzie)
    • 4 Residential Advisors who were involved in the incident (Lucy, Wes, Toby, and James)
    • 1 Hall Manager (Meg)
    • 2 Facilitators
  • Criminal Charges Pending: None (Note to readers from the United States: the drinking age in New Zealand is 18 so all university students are able to legally and openly drink in the dorms. RAs still monitor the halls and intervene when people need help or things get out of control, but unlike dorms in the United States, they do not generally restrict drinking or confiscate alcohol. If this case had taken place in the US, the students involved would be facing Minor in Possession charges.)
  • Referring Agent: University Residential Life staff  
  • Factual Synopsis: A university freshman fell down the area between the stairs in the stairwell of his dorm while extremely drunk. He fell three stories and the RAs and his friends who were there worried he may die, have brain damage or be paralyzed.
  • Narrative:

Ron (18) lives in a university dorm with a group of guys he went to boarding school with. They have been close for a long time and spend most weekend evenings drinking together. The group is the central hub for partying in the dorm and most of the problems the RAs have encountered so far this year have taken place on their floor.

On the night of the incident, Ron and his friends had been drinking since about 4:30pm. Ron reported having had ten drinks in a short period of time. The RAs encountered him around 8pm and he was severely intoxicated. He urinated in the hallway and cursed at an RA named Wes. The head RA who was on duty that night (Toby) and Wes spoke strictly with Ron and instructed him to stop drinking. Not long after that, Ron attempted to slide down the banister of the stairwell and fell backwards, landing on the ground three stories below.

When the co-facilitator and I met with Ron for the pre-conference, he shared that he didn’t remember anything that happened in between falling backwards from the banister and waking up in the hospital on Sunday. Miraculously, Ron is recovering quickly and so far does not appear to have any permanent brain damage. He has several staples in the back of his head and is not allowed to exercise or drink for several months, but is otherwise back to normal. During our conversation with Ron, he acknowledged that the alcohol had played a primary role in the incident and said he considered himself lucky that the injuries hadn’t been worse. When we asked him to talk about who might have been impacted, he mentioned that his friends and family were relieved he was ok, but otherwise couldn’t think of any impacts. It was clear that Ron did not yet understand the seriousness of the incident and the harms experienced by others.

We also pre-conferenced Ron’s best friend Shane and ex-girlfriend Lizzie. Shane and Lizzie were both brought to the scene by the RAs who responded and saw Ron on the ground, his head in a pool of blood. They stayed there and tried to talk to him as the paramedics put him on a stretcher, turned him to the side when he began to vomit, and loaded him in the ambulance. Lizzie went with Ron to the hospital and stayed with him until his mom arrived. She said the whole time she was just concerned about Ron and whether he would be ok and hadn’t had a chance to process her own emotions about the incident. Her personality is to ignore her emotions and focus on something else. Shane also expressed being relieved that Ron was ok and ready for things to go back to normal. He mentioned several times how relieved he was that Ron was “still Ron” and that his personality was still intact after such a major blow to the head. He said this incident had been a wakeup call to the group to not drink as much and to look out for each other, but said mostly everyone was just trying to move past it.

The turning point for all involved came during the conference when the RAs spoke and shared the story of what had happened from their perspective and their role in it. James was walking in the hallway on the second floor when he saw something falling in the area in between the stairs out of the corner of his eye and heard a thud as it hit the ground. He assumed it was trash being thrown down from the third floor, so first raced up to the third floor to see if there was anyone there. When he looked down, he saw Ron’s body sprawled out on the ground with a pool of blood already forming. He ran down the stairs to assist Wes who was already at the scene. Wes had heard the thump from Ron hitting the ground and had gone to investigate. He explained that when he first saw Ron’s body on the ground, he was sure he was dead and his immediate thought was that Ron had jumped on purpose. Wes knew Ron was upset after getting in trouble with the RAs earlier and worried he might have tried to take his own life. Wes described sitting by Ron’s head, trying to towel up the blood and keep Ron awake until medical help arrived. He said that a few times, Ron let out a big sigh and Wes thought that he had died in that moment. Meanwhile, James called for an ambulance and also phoned the two RAs on duty, Toby and Lucy.

When Toby arrived and saw what had happened, he also thought immediately about suicide and the thought tortured him. Toby described that throughout the night and for several days after he would see Ron’s body falling when he closed his eyes. He struggled with trauma from the experience and a few of his family members drove up to the university to support him. Wes also said he was haunted by the experience and has continued to see images of Ron falling and surrounded by blood. Lucy described herself as squeamish when it comes to blood and vomit, so took on the role of finding Ron’s friend Shane. She described that when she went up to the hall to find Shane, no one would talk to her or tell her where he was. Because the students associate RAs with getting in trouble, no one wanted to tell her where she could find Shane. Finally Shane stepped forward and said he was Ron’s friend. She told him something had happened to Ron and took him to the stairwell. Soon after, Lizzie also arrived and Lucy took on the role of comforting her. Through Lucy’s story, the true impact on Shane and Lizzie was revealed to Ron. She told him about how upset they were and worried that they may have lost him. The RAs all also spoke about how difficult it was to go right back to work after this incident and deal with students yelling at them and being upset with them for doing their job, especially after having just dealt with such a life-threatening and traumatic incident.

The hall manager, Meg, was called to the scene from home and the paramedics were there by the time she arrived. She said that she has always known that if she lost a student, she wouldn’t be able to do her job anymore. She was gripped with fear and worry as she drove to the scene. After Ron was taken to the hospital, it was her job to call his mother to tell her what had happened. Meg described how difficult it was to deliver that news, trying to reassure Ron’s mother that he was going to be ok.

After all four RAs and Meg had spoken, Ron expressed how grateful he was that they all helped him and said that he may not be alive if they hadn’t responded so quickly and effectively. The RAs also shared that they didn’t know that Ron didn’t remember what had happened, so had felt upset when he hadn’t said anything to them when he returned. Shane also expressed appreciation for the job that RAs do. He said that often people think of the RAs as getting in the way of fun, but through this, he and his friends had seen that they are really there to help and had gained a deep appreciation for the work they do. When the group talked about things that could happen next to repair the harms and make sure something like this never happened again, they talked about the negative perception of RAs and Shane, Lizzie, and Ron all agreed to use their social capital in the dorm to improve relationships and respect between residents and RAs. Ron, Shane and Lizzie also all committed to more moderate drinking and to watching out for their friends when they are drinking together. James and Wes reflected that even for them as RAs, this had been a wakeup call to the true danger of excessive drinking and the lasting impact a split second drunk decision can have.

By the end of the conference, everyone involved expressed being grateful for a chance to sit down and talk through what had happened and the impacts. Each person left with a better understanding of others’ experiences and a deeper connection moving forward.

Often in university dorms, there is a strict division between RAs and the other students. Having myself been an RA in college, I often felt like we were seen only as getting in the way of fun, when in reality we were doing the important work of keeping everyone safe. RAs are watching out for alcohol poisoning and getting people the help they need, they are tuned into the mental and emotional states of their residents and responding to issues of self-harm. They are dealing with homesickness, roommate and friendship disputes, stress, substance abuse issues, sexual abuse, eating disorders and every other issue that can arise when hundreds of university students live together, and yet so often the depth of their work is not seen. Likewise, RAs sometimes don’t see their residents as full people, as they encounter them so often in their worst intoxicated, inappropriate, or dangerous moments. Having a chance for the group of students involved in this traumatic incident to sit down together to talk openly and honestly about their experience was transformational for all involved because it gave them a chance to see and hear each other more completely. Having this opportunity to connect genuinely and openly woven into the daily interactions of university life could entirely transform the university community.