“My son was brutally assaulted in school by this boy for no reason! He didn’t even fight back and he suffered a concussion from the beating. And the whole thing was broadcast over social media, so clearly it was planned!” Robert’s mother’s outrage and concern for her son was palpable. This matter had been referred for a conference by the juvenile court system in hopes that it could be better resolved than a formal court hearing.
When both families finally agreed to conference, it was held at a local church. I asked Eddie, the 17-year-old boy who had assaulted Robert to explain what had happened. He admitted the assault. He claimed that Robert had “picked on” one of his friends and he was defending the friend. The friend had also told him that Robert had been “telling everyone” that Eddie “wouldn’t do anything.” For sake of his honor, he “had to show people.”
Robert was clearly smaller than Eddie, and he denied that he had done anything to provoke Eddie. The two boys began to talk back and forth and a picture emerged of “Eddie’s friends” provoking the conflict and being prepared to videotape it and post on social media.
After about an hour of discussion of how both boys had been feeling about the conflict, Eddie’s mother apologized to Robert and his parents for what Eddie had done. Eventually, Eddie also apologized to both as well. Robert’s mother, who had been so outraged at the incident, thawed in her attitude towards Eddie and accepted the apologies. Both boys agreed that their conflict was over and that, if either heard things that the other had said about him, he would approach the other privately to verify it or speak with the counselor at school. A written agreement was signed by all and Eddie and Robert decided to shake hands as a sign of resolution.
The above (some details modified to maintain confidentiality) represents the work Community Conferencing in Carroll County has been doing for the past five years. This “new” approach to resolving conflicts, often ones that have resulted in criminal charges, is actually a return to a very old, traditional approach. Departing from a model that is centered in government and embracing a community-centered approach, a conference doesn’t emphasize what rule of the government has been broken, nor who should be punished and how severely.
Rather, the conference focuses on what harm was done to a person or group. The discussion focuses on how people have been affected and what it would take to “make it right” or to resolve it. Of course, it also focuses on whose responsibility it is to “make it right”. We have been involved in scores of matters, referred by schools, the courts, and sometimes by individuals involved in conflict themselves. Well over 95 percent of the conferences have ended with a written agreement.
Delmas Wood is the Program Director of Community Conferencing of Carroll County, which is a fund of the Community Foundation of Carroll County, Inc. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 443-487-1012.