Fostering forgiveness

When Brendan Lee was hired by Baltimore's City Springs School to mediate disputes, the teachers spent much of their time breaking up fights and strategizing how to separate gang members at lunchtime. Five years later, fighting was a rarity and suspensions had plummeted from 83 in 2008 to just 18 in 2013 — a 78 percent decrease.

How? Mr. Lee and his boss, Principal Rhonda Richetta, instituted restorative practices, which are modeled after restorative justice, an alternative approach that strives to heal victims, rehabilitate offenders and repair crime's damage to communities. Mr. Lee, who received a NAACP Hometown Hero award in Los Angeles last January, uses "circles" to bring students together to talk and listen. He asks them to share their version of what happened during a conflict, their thoughts and feelings about it, and what they think could bring resolution. When I spent a week at City Springs while reporting a book about forgiveness, I watched Mr. Lee lead circles on student-teacher disputes and peer bullying, and all led to resolution.


At a time when Americans have grown accustomed to mass shootings and Baltimore recently endured its most violent month in modern history, we should follow City Springs' lead. Along with reasonable regulations on guns, we can implement in our schools and communities the research-tested habits that foster the seeking and granting of forgiveness and prevent disagreements from escalating into violence. These habits include storytelling and empathic listening, acknowledging the impact of one's actions and the necessity of taking responsibility for them, and promoting positive contact and cooperation between members of groups in conflict.

In one of Mr. Lee's circles, a teacher explained to a student that he felt disrespected when he was called names, and the student expressed anger that the teacher commented on his father. They hugged and returned to class together.

Research shows how and why these interventions work. The sharing of testimonials to people listening with compassion — what therapists call, "empathic listening" — increases mutual empathy. A literature review of nearly 800 cases by University of Cambridge Professor Lawrence Sherman also found that crime victims who participate in conferences with offenders who robbed or assaulted them are 23 times as likely as other crime victims to feel that they've received a sincere apology, four times less likely to experience desire for revenge, and more than twice as likely to report forgiving their offenders.

Meaningful contact and collaboration toward shared goals is also key to fostering mutual forgiveness and preventing conflict. "Through deep contact and joint projects, people can develop relationships and see the other's humanity," Dr. Ervin Staub, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, wrote in a 2013 research review in American Psychologist. At a summer camp that unites Israeli and Palestinian girls, an Israeli teen told me, "I came ready to shoot a fact at any Arab like an arrow, but once I started talking to Arab women, I realized I didn't know anything about what was happening on the other side."

The science of cooperation — which includes studies in classrooms that show how children from different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups who work on shared tasks develop more positive attitudes toward each other — aligns with evolutionary psychologists' theory that forgiveness is a hardwired response that prompts the cooperation necessary for thriving communities. Research suggests that while forgiveness can lead to cooperation, cooperation can also lead to mutual forgiveness by prioritizing a joint goal over past disputes or negative prejudices.

Physiology explains why these habits work. When you're angry, your blood pressure rises; the amygdala, the brain's ancient alarm system responsible for reacting to threats, is triggered; and neurotransmitters like adrenaline impede the brain's ability to problem-solve. In contrast, when people consider whether someone can be forgiven and attempt to understand someone else's experience, the more modern parts of the brain responsible for problem-solving, impulse control and emotional regulation are activated. When someone has to hear the impact of his harsh words or violent act, unless he's a sociopath (which most people aren't), his capacity for empathy — and remorse — is triggered, along with his ability to try to repair the damage. That, in turn, validates the victim and makes him more likely to forgive.

What Brendan Lee has managed to accomplish at City Springs School by having children sit down and talk to one another is something we should do in every institution nationwide. It's cost-effective, it's not controversial, and it works.

Megan Feldman Bettencourt is author of "Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World (Penguin Random House 2015); website: