I was sitting beside Zack, a 17-year-old charged with seriously assaulting Michael — sitting on my other side — at the end of a local baseball game when both teams erupted into a fight (precipitated by two mothers fighting in the stands). After Zack punched an unprepared Michael in the face, causing significant dental damage, several of his teammates proceeded to kick Michael on the ground as his grandmother, on the field as a scorekeeper, stood beside him, aghast and helpless.
Several weeks later, I asked Zack to begin our meeting, and he quietly and hesitatingly described what he had done. He seemed guarded, as he took responsibility for “making a bad choice” and admitted that he was so angry that he was hitting everyone wearing the other team’s uniform. When it was Michael’s grandmother’s chance to speak, she asked if she could read a letter that she had written to Zack. She described how angry she had been at him, and how she had prayed, asking God what to do. She wondered what Jesus would do if He had a grandson who had been harmed like that. She said that it was clear what Jesus would do — He would forgive. So she told Zack that she forgave him. She said that she had been praying for him.
Zack appeared disarmed by this love directed at him. He thanked the grandmother, as well as Michael’s grandfather and Michael himself, who had shared similar feelings.
After much discussion, and feeling much more relaxed in the company, Zack told each of the family that he was very sorry, and asked them to forgive him (though they already had voiced that forgiveness). Zack’s guardian offered to handle Michael’s dental bills. At the end of the conference, there was a swell of warm emotions, evidenced by embraces all around the circle.
The above (with some details modified to maintain confidentiality) represents the work Community Conferencing in Carroll County has been doing for the past six 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, by the courts and sometimes by individuals involved in conflict themselves. Well over 95% of the conferences have ended with a written agreement.
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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.