Unitive Circle Case Studies

Public school case study 1

A Teacher and Student Achieve Mutual Benefit

A simple, but typical, example of a circle using the principles of unitive justice in a school is one involving a teacher and a student named Thomas. Thomas had been causing serious problems, especially in one particular classroom. He cursed at the teacher, walked out of class, turned the light switch on and off and was not doing his work. The teacher initiated a circle to address the problem. In the course of the circle, it became clear that the student objected to the teacher requiring him to sit in the front row in the class and the disruptive misconduct was his way of “screaming louder” because his prior objections had not produced results.   

The facilitator asked the teacher, “Why is it important to you that Thomas sit in the front row?” The teacher replied that it was necessary in order for him to see that Thomas did his work. He added that when the student sat in the back row, he had pulled display items off the bulletin board. The student was asked to reflect back to the teacher what he had heard, which the student grudgingly did.

The facilitator asked Thomas, “Why is it important to you to sit in the back row?” In his own words, Thomas explained, in essence, that he lives in a group home and has been in detention several times. Based on prior experience, when he can’t see who is behind him, “bad things happen.”

The teacher was asked, “What did you hear Thomas say,” and the teacher replied, “I heard him say that he doesn’t feel safe in my classroom.” When the student was asked if that was it, he responded strongly in the affirmative. This moment of mutual understanding is a distinct stage in the process.

The teacher recognized he unknowingly had met his own needs at the expense of the student’s needs, identifying the shared responsibility that the rules of evidence in the punitive process usually keep from being considered. With that insight, any prior desire on the part of the teacher for punitive discipline disappeared.

The teacher immediately made this offer. “I will see that you have a seat in my class where you feel safe and, in return, I ask that you do your work.” Thomas immediately agreed, and a mutually beneficial outcome was achieved. 

In my experience, when the participants uncover the underlying conflict dynamic, it tends to be like what happened in this circle: unique to the circumstances, but not complex. What needs to be done is apparent when we have eyes that can see, i.e., not blinded by judgment and a desire for revenge. 

No one has to lose when the breakdown is addressed with a balanced giving and receiving that leaves everyone feeling the resolution is fair. In this case, the circle ended with a signed written agreement. A year later the teacher reported that Thomas’ behavior immediately improved after the circle and remained within acceptable bounds thereafter. 

Public School case study 2

Two Cousins Come to Mutual Understanding

Another circle involved two ninth grade boys who were cousins. This circle had its own unique underlying conflict dynamic, but as soon as it was uncovered, the conflict was again easily resolved in a mutually beneficial way.

The younger cousin had been put out of his home by his mother and was temporarily living in the home of the older cousin. When they came to the circle they were both angry and frustrated. The younger boy felt the older one was bullying him, always on his back, constantly telling him what to do and not do. The older one said the younger one did stupid things and acted like a “jerk.” Each judged the other to be in the wrong and wanted to be vindicated.

The facilitator began the circle with the most recent incident, asking what each would like the other to know about that event. Immediately they launched into calling each other pejorative names, back and forth, one after the other. (This process permits the participants to express their pain in the words they choose, not telling them how they have to talk.) Then there was a pause and the younger cousin conceded, “You win, I can’t think of any more names.”                                                                                                                  

The facilitator asked what they would now like the other to know. There was a silence, and then the older boy said to the younger one, “I am older and I feel responsible for you.” The younger one turned his back to the circle and faced the wall, but not in an angry way. The older one tenderly said: “Don’t you see? I love you and I don’t want you to get hurt.” The younger one had tears running down his cheeks. They had come to a mutual understanding of why they had been at odds.

They then figured out that each needed to moderate his conduct and be more considerate of the other. Their acceptance of shared responsibility was the natural next step. They agreed on what each would do to get along and these terms were reflected in their signed agreement. A mutually beneficial outcome was achieved and their bond that had been broken was mended.  The generosity of spirit that emerges must be inherent in our human nature, as it easily emerges when it is given a space in which to live. 

Public school case study 3

Taking a Deeper Look at Bullying

Jasmine was first referred to the Restorative School Program when she felt Lillie was bullying her. Lillie said she had not realized what she had done was so upsetting, and said she would not pick on Jasmine anymore - unless Jasmine spoke to her first. (Throughout the circle, Jasmine continually laughed when it was inappropriate, causing Lillie to complain, “She thinks it’s funny.”) They did not reach an agreement because Jasmine was not willing to tell Lillie when she did something that was upsetting and Lillie felt she wouldn’t know if Jasmine didn’t tell her. However, the conflict did not reoccur.

Jasmine was referred to the Restorative Program a second time a month later after Lamesha had allegedly threatened Jasmine. Shantel, an ally of Lamesha, was also in the circle. Jasmine described feeling frustrated because, if she does not react when she is picked on, students think she is an easy target, but if she fights when challenged, she gets into trouble and will be suspended. 

Lamesha and Shantel felt they were wrongfully blamed for things they didn’t do. They are both on the basketball team and believe that students pick on them thinking they won’t respond because they will lose their opportunity to be on the team if they get into a fight. Lamesha and Shantel stated that this conflict arose because Jasmine laughed too much and that annoyed them. Jasmine admitted that she laughed to hide her real feelings. Lamesha asserted that she never apologizes. There was no agreement because they could not see any possibility things could be different among them. Nonetheless, the conflict subsided.

Jasmine came to a circle for the third time the following month. Angela had hit her on the arm in the hall, intending it to be playful, but realized Jasmine found it objectionable. Angela apologized but Jasmine reacted with angry words. Both students were preparing to fight in class when Security Staff were called to intervene. It was revealed that, on several occasions prior to this incident, Angela had been nice to Jasmine by defending her with other students, but each time she did so, Angela also told Jasmine that she didn’t like her. Jasmine said that Angela shouldn’t be nice to her if she didn’t like her; it would be better if she was not nice to her to begin with, as it was confusing. 

At first, Angela repeated several times that she did not like Jasmine, but didn’t seem able to articulate why. Then Angela recalled that, when a close friend of hers had died, Jasmine had laughed when she overheard the conversation and this was extremely painful to Angela. Jasmine explained that it was not because she thought it was funny, and she knew that she laughed when it was not the right thing to do, a way of hiding the hurt she felt in side. Angela cried when she recalled how hurtful this incident had been, and Jasmine apologized. They did not reach an agreement because the painful memory that had come up for Angela was too alive for her to set it aside. The conflict seems to have dissipated.

The next month Jasmine came to a circle for the fourth time. This time she initiated the circle process when other attempts to resolve a conflict with Torie had failed and Jasmine felt they were getting close to fighting. The two students don’t have classes together, but Torie admitted she had picked on Jasmine in the halls. She didn’t have a good reason for doing so, and even said that she was actually “cool” with Jasmine most of the time. There was only one very brief episode when Jasmine laughed inappropriately in the circle. The students came to a resolution of the conflict fairly quickly by agreeing to be friendly in the halls and, if they have another conflict, they will bring it to a circle. 

This series of circles, all of which included the same student, show how progressive circles provided her with valuable peer feedback that helped her learn better social skills. Better social skills improved her relationships. While the conduct of the "bullies" is not condoned, the feedback they were able to share is lost in the punitive system where students are separated without an opportunity to examine what happened. Their social skills also improved from the insight they gained.

Photo credit: Nikhita S on Unsplash.

Public School case study 4

Learning How to be Free

The following circle demonstrates how participants are able to recognize the underlying conflict dynamic out of which their conflict arose, thus enabling them to strategize more effectively about how to break out of the hold that dynamic has on them.

Ra-stan and Mikah were 9th grade boys who got into a fight, again. They happened to have the same counselor who knew them to both be good kids at heart. The counselor intervened and initiated a circle to keep them from being suspended, again.

The next morning in the circle the students figured out that the problem started when Ra-stan’s former girlfriend told him that Mikah was spreading lies about him. Angered by this wrong, Ra-stan confronted Mikah in the hall. He demanded that Mikah tell him what he has to say about him instead of telling others. Mikah took this confrontation as a challenge to fight, so he swung at Ra-stan. Security intervened and both boys were sent home for the rest of the day.

The next morning in the circle, the boys figured out that the girl had portrayed herself as a friend to both of them, and that she was relaying information between them as, in her view, an act of “friendship.” They thought she might actually be using Mikah to get back at Ra-stan for breaking up with her. Ra-stan then described how some students would set other students up for a fight just to have fun. “Then they laugh at us when we get suspended or get sent to detention.” Ra-stan told Mikah that they needed to avoid that type of fight, because it wasn’t worth getting in trouble for others to have fun.

Mikah began talking about how his family had moved to Richmond from New York, and the local students don’t like outsiders. He said he mainly kept to himself but in New York he had fought when he needed to and he was going to fight here when he had to. When Ra-stan challenged him he couldn’t back off. Then he stated that he fought “for respect.” He explained that if he didn’t have respect, he was an easy target and he would have to fight even more. He added that, if he didn’t have respect, his younger brother got bullied on the school bus, so he fought as a way of protecting his brother, as well.

As Mikah continued to talk, he revealed that his mother sold candy in their neighborhood to make extra money. He then described an incident when a man came into their house and held a gun to his younger brother’s head to steal the candy money. Mikah said that if he showed he was afraid to fight, this type of thing was more likely to happen to his family, so he had no choice but to fight whenever he was challenged. The cost of not doing so placed his family at even greater risk than they already faced by virtue of living in a project.

Then Mikah told about a boy in one of his classes who was smaller but smarter than some boys who continually bullied him. Mikah described intervening on behalf of the targeted student, telling the bullies to leave him alone. The facilitator reflected that she heard Mikah saying that he had a strong sense of responsibility and justice. He confirmed that this is what he wanted known. 

The agreement reached between Mikah and Ra-stan provided that they would let their present conflict go, when they have a future problem they will seek out a counselor to discuss it with, and, when needed, they will bring conflicts to a circle.

Post Note: Ra-stan seemed to be describing his fights as a matter of survival, not only for himself, but for those whom he loves. If this is the case, punishing him for fighting merely adds another cost to surviving. Multiple suspensions then add the additional cost of a jeopardized education, and a path toward the slippery slope from school to prison. School suspensions are not an effective way to change his behavior.  

Students who set other students up to fight are rarely caught and punished in the punitive disciplinary system. Without a safe place like the circle for the students who fought to analyze how it happened, the role played by the student(s) who set it up is often not recognized. In addition, the students who set them up are protected by the strong "no snitching" code that the punitive system gives rise to, so for them it's a game. That no snitching code is an aspect of the underlying conflict dynamic that these students are caught in, as it exists in every punitive system.