5 tips for the journey, community to school-based Restorative Justice.

I was very fortunate that in 1999 and 2000 the founders of St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Program, had intentions on focusing the program on juveniles.  They also engaged a founding board member, who at the time was on the local school board.  Her take on expulsions in schools, was youth were being pushed away at a time they should be brought closer.   With her leadership SCVRJP focused on “embedding the philosophy” of Restorative Justice in the St. Croix Valley.  As board chair she guided us towards the areas of juvenile justice and schools, and the core programs of Victim Impact Panels and victim-offender mediation (as we called it then).

As luck would have it, we added a high school assistant principal to the board of directors.  His house was egged, he accepted Restorative Justice.  His story of the healing it brought his spouse, and the positive relationship with the students, promoted his support and use of SCVRJP.

The first Circle I kept for SCVRJP was in 2005, for a school-based incident.  I still keep a copy of the young man’s apology letter in my book of Circle readings.  He still keeps the Circle of individual ribbons tied together, in his top drawer of special things.

I live 12 miles from River Falls, where SCVRJP was founded and eventually opened the Restorative Justice Center in 2006.  Before the Restorative Justice Center opened, when I was “on the clock” I would stop in at the high school.  This became a pattern of getting cases.  Sometimes it was the students waiting to be disciplined. The assistant principal saw me, saw the student, and brought us in his office together.  Sometimes we just visited about how to handle concerns at the school restoratively.  SCVRJP handled cases of lunch room food fights, students assaulting each other, gym class threats, mean girls, overdose at school, truancy, drugs and drinking on a field trip.  We handled these in various degrees of diversion or formal involvement.

The use of Restorative Justice was part of the student handbook and code of conduct.  A few years later I called back for a new copy, it had already been removed.  Staff changed, SCVRJP got busier and the use of Restorative Justice reduced in individual cases, and increased in teachers and staff coming to training.  SCVRJP volunteers helped with Circles at a lock-in, one of those high school students is now in my college course!  At any rate, things change, that is the first tip for the journey!

Be wise with your time and energy, things ebb and flow, and they change.  Especially in schools.  be patient when working with school systems.  Consider the growing of a garden, sometimes to prune things back is best.  Sometimes you get good tomatoes and sometimes you feed the bugs!

The 2nd tip, is to promote community.  As community based programs, we are often “righting wrongs”.  Community programs typically take referrals after an incident has happened.  In schools it is important to reaffirm, repair and rebuild relationships (pbis posts).  I teach schools Circles, because they can be used for academic instruction, classroom behavior management, and resolving conflict.  To teach teachers how to do a victim-offender conference, is not the way to start (in my opinion).  They don’t have time, they don’t understand the overarching philosophy or goals.  The 3rd tip, is to meet schools where they are at.

Meet a school where they are at means spending time getting to know how they have come to want school-based restorative justice.  I could list 50 different schools I’ve worked with, and I can give you 50 different ways they came to want to be trained in Restorative Justice.  Help them based on where they are at and what they want.  Align with the goals of those invested.

My 4th ‘wisdom of the lived experience’, encourage them to try something.  When working with schools, have the direct application tips for teachers.  These people are already angels, and they need clear specific “how do I” answers and training materials.  Be structured in what you are asking them to do, from the 1:1 conversation with students, to how to keep the Circle.  I love good teachers, the best are no-bullshit, and for a farm girl from South Dakota, I’ve always gotten that.  They need you to be real, and to be confident and know your stuff.  If you don’t know it, you can’t fake it.  The best compliment I got was someone giving me positive feedback for doing Circle in Circle training.  He had just been at a training on student engagement, and the trainer lectured and did powerpoint the entire day.

The 5th tip . . . walk the journey, go back to the school, do coaching and follow up.  I had some exhausting days, but I learned the most when I went from class to class, circle to circle.  I was right beside the team I was helping, I was in the school community they were trying to transform.  Once I sent someone to go learn, and the school ended up on lock-down.  The teacher and I laughed afterwards, but the lessons learned from that experience won’t go unforgotten!

The journey from community to school-based tips:

  1. Things Change, honor that cycles happen.
  2. Build community in schools, don’t start at the top of the PBIS triangle, start at the bottom.
  3. Meet schools where they are.  What’s working well, what are they trying to accomplish.
  4. Get specific action items to those being trained.  Encourage people to try something new.
  5. Follow up, coach, get experience doing the work in a school setting.

SCVRJP is hosting an advanced school-based training on June 8 & 9 in River Falls, WI.  From now until July 31, I am available to do contracted trainings for SCVRJP.  On August 1st, I will be available as Circle Space Services, offering trainings for practitioners and school-based providers.

Creating Restorative Justice Peacemaking Circles how and why the relationship value question matters.

In Restorative Justice Peacemaking Circle process, and every Circle facilitated by SCVRJP, we identify relationship values at the first round with the talking piece.This is extremely important and requires an understanding of how and why that is so important.  A teachable lesson emerged recently and can demonstrate why framing the question is so important.

Technique & How  

1) Ask people to identify a relationship. Hand out paper plates

2) Ask them to identify something really important in that relationship.  Avoid using the word “value”, you are going to go behind the social mask, by asking this indirectly.  Suggest what makes the relationship great, without it, it would not be the same.

3)Handout markers, asking them to write the word about that relationship on the plate.  Remind them of the non-judgmental context, lots of things make great relationships, to just pick one for today.  Getting again behind their own judgments or preparing what they think they “should” say.

4)Role model, go first, start the talking piece, place plates in the center.


1) Brain connections – engage people in thoughts of loved ones stimulates brain chemicals to promote openness.

2)Indirect ask – – we all want to fit in and belong, we use social masks, our answer change if we are with our friends or our parents friends.  That’s good because that creates accountability and social norms.  We want to get to the heart of people in Circle, and using the approach reaches a more genuine context.

3) Relationships matter – asking about a specific relationship that the person has, reinforces the importance of relationships and brings in dialogue relvant to what really motivates our behaviors.

4)Topic matter is comfortable – everyone can easily share about someone they have a relationship with.  This promotes bonding and a successful first round with the talking piece.


It was observed in Circle that the relationship/values questions was framed as “someone you find inspiring”.  Participants picked figures like Gandhi, very few people have a personal relationship with Gandhi, so this question eliminates the personal context of who and what is important in personal relationships.  The “someone” rather than a relationship leaves out the discussion of disclosing who is important to us.  By a de-personalized question, people can social mask it easier and pick a figure, vs an actual relationship.  The cross pollination of discovering others values on relationship values is lost with the question framed this way.  The question could still be utilized in Circle, however it might not be the most effective and developing values that the Circle can then commit to use for the rest of the process.

Restorative Justice Peacemaking Circle Training for Veteran Support.

Beginning January 15 and concluding on February 7, this blog will feature posts on applying Restorative Justice Peacemaking Circle process to the support of Veterans, Veteran family members and community volunteers.  This area and application for supporting healing, reintegration and restorative justice principles has been in the works for me for years.  The first formal training is scheduled for February 10 & 11, 2014.  Please click here: Veterans Circle Training Feb 2014 for the flyer.  You can also save this pdf, and then email as an attachment.

To bring this training together, SCVRJP has partnered with a dynamic program  in Northern Minnesota, the Eagles Healing Nest.  For a story that aired on my birthday:  http://kstp.com/article/stories/s2953855.shtml and the Eagles Healing Nest Website: http://www.eagleshealingnest.com.

Join us for the training or consider arranging a training in your community!  If you have a program to feature, I would be happy to link to your program in the February 7 blog post.  Email me your questions of topics for the Restorative Justice Veterans Support blog features at scvrjp@gmail.com.

Thanks and have a Happy New Year!


Restorative Justice Circles create connections, effortlessly.

The feeling at the end of the Circle was explained as having a sense of “did I meet you before”?  I loved that, and I got it right away.  When you meet someone and realize you have shared values, common perspectives and a sense of safety, you feel a bond, a kinship.

Someone I think a lot of, and we think alike, offered “maybe we were Sisters, in a past life”.  I like that explanation as well, it really sums up that maybe our connection is something bigger and beyond the reality we can see, hear and feel right now.

I have to carefully navigate confidentiality here.  Something is in the news lately, and a few years ago, someone in Circle talked about being impacted by that situation.  Everyt ime I hear the news, I think back to this person, because of the shared Circle experience.  I feel more connected to the situation because I heard it from someone directly.  When you see eye ball to eye ball, and you hear right from someone’s mouth, you connect to it, because you witness it.

I believe Circles impact us biologically.  Our brains fire off good chemicals, we relax, our breathing slows down because we feel safe.  Our compassion and caring DNA gets to activate, depending on how much nurturing we had as a child.  The activity of connection, sharing and growing together leaves us different from when we start the process.  The creation of connections are effortless with Circle.

As a keeper of the process, lay the foundation, set the table, be in tune to the overall philosophy and hold it closely.  I planned an agenda, prepared a powerpoint and had a day-long training session ready to go.  A comment about my Circle center “mat” which is a crocheted doily, just came of out.

Image from: http://www.crochetmemories.com/patterns/doily5D.jpg

I shared how a neighborhood Circle used a similar item, and someone in the Circle shared that if just one yarn breaks the whole piece will come unraveled.  Our communities should be the same and if we lose just one child, our community is unraveling.  I explained that a placemat for the talking pieces also creates something that shows the reverence for them, demonstrating they are special items.  I went on to add how a Circle Center reminds us to stay centered.

It wasn’t part of the agenda, the only part I had really planned was to do a Circle with the group.  In setting up the Circle I told a story, and stories help us connect to each other.  It was a brief offered opportunity, I didn’t get long winded (well from my perspective anyway), I stuck to the relevant and important facts.  That’s the effortless part.

When you can learn to speak, as if you are in Circle – picking the wise-est words, speaking from the heart, with positive intentions for others, how can people not connect.  Practice Restorative Justice principles and the connections to each other will be effortless.  Effortlessly building connections means people can learn more from each other and open themselves up to the places that need healing.  Someone you never met, can suddenly feel like someone you know.

A ride on a mountain bike resembled Restorative Justice.

In March I had the good fortune of having an overnight retreat session with Kay Pranis.  Kay wrote the book on Restorative Justice Circles.  If you haven’t read Peacemaking Circles, I highly recommend it.

I have known Kay for years, she and I thought maybe as far back as 1997, when I still worked in Rochester, Minnesota.  Kay helped SCVRJP develop our mission statement, she provided Circle training to staff that I supervised.  I attended a training in 2002 when her book was just published.  At conferences and trainings we have connected.  In March, we stayed at a State Park cabin, a cozy place free of distractions.  I felt so safe, so honored and so satisfied with deep conversations about Circle, the history of Circles in the US.  I related cases, Kay provided insights, offerings and support.  We drifted off to sleep after sharing how valuable the process is to each of us.  She thinks she might become sick if she doesn’t do it.

I was back at the state park a few days ago.  Instead of snowshoes, I was on my mountain bike.  As I was riding along the path that Kay and I walked just two months ago, it occurred to me that I never blogged on my lessons with her.  She gave me full permission, I thought of several amazing posts to write.  Thinking them is never the problem, typing them is the challenge.

On my bike that day, I was beyond my physical limits.  Something I like to, it’s odd, I like to push myself.  I was panting, my legs were burning, I was seriously questioning my sanity.  Sometimes I couldn’t think, all I could do was focus on continuing to pedal.

To get up hills, I was having to stand up and lean forward.  As I pedaled and pushed with determination this became a response.  It really worked, and in one movement I caught myself.  It didn’t make any sense!  I had stood up on the pedals and leaned so far forward, my heart was above the front tire.  I had a feeling for a split second I was going to wipe out.  I realized this made it easy to get up the hill.  It could only be a second or I would have toppled forward.  It hit me that my mountain bike ride was resembling restorative justice.

To do restorative justice you must lead with your heart.  You must put yourself forward in a risky way.  An offender must lay all cards on the table, admit all harms, acknowledge the full extent of hurts.  A victim must open and push themselves to a place of deep awareness, to go towards what healing needs they have.

Maybe it was the energy of the area, because Kay and I had walked and talked there.  Maybe it was my odd passion for restorative justice, it could also have been the lack of oxygen, the lazy winter and out of shape 40 something on her bike.  Maybe all of the above, but the lesson was real and I believe it:  Lead with your heart to get restorative justice.

Listen in to this amazing story: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0112b61/Womans_Hour_10_05_2011/

Restorative Justice promotes healthy relationships, one Circle at a time.

I am working on a letter to a prison inmate.  I am trying to describe and explain what I have been meaning, when I say that SCVRJP provides “support”.  SCVRJP offers our volunteers and clients (victims, offenders & community members) a place to practice positive healthy relationships.

The value of a healthy relationship is invaluable.  Recovery doesn’t happen in isolation.  Change doesn’t happen without connections.  Community doesn’t happen without others.  The experience of knowing you have been generous, kind, supportive, helpful, honest can only happen, in the experience.

We can talk about healthy relationships one-to-one with our therapist, probation officer, physician, spiritual advisor, best friend.  Being new and being better in relationships requires that we have healthy relationships.

Read a book about swimming and you get some tips.  Get in the water and learn to swim.

A Restorative Justice Circle starts with clarifying relationship values.  The getting acquainted stage starts with explaining the process, reading an opening and then having all involved contribute a value.  Speaking about the values and making a committment to them is the easy part.  That’s the part like reading the book on swimming.

When you get to the parts of the Circle that involve building relationships and addressing issues you are having a healthy relationship.  Time and time again people step up and operate from a deep place of respect and understanding.

I have witnessed victims express themselves, offenders take ownership for harm caused.  It is healthy in the depth of a Circle.  It is healthy when young people share of themselves.  It is healthy when we take time to listen to each other.  It is healthy when we come away with a changed attitude because we gave a received our thoughts and experiences.

People leave Circle different from when they arrive. 

There is power that transforms people when you create a community of listeners, taking turns.

Get yourself into a real, Restorative Justice Circle, the values, a talking piece, a open and close are parts of a real Circle.