January 10, 2013 | by Ilana Zafran

Helping Students Heal

As I sit down in a small circle with the two students, Leah and Stacy, I can feel the tension. Peace Ambassadors Workshop“Good morning,” I greet them with my warmest voice in an attempt to break the tension. 

Neither of them answers me. I take a deep breath, and explain to the students what is about to happen: “We will be doing a Peace Circle because you two tried to fight each other yesterday.” I hold up a small stuffed animal moose and explain that it will serve as our talking piece – whoever has it is the only one that can speak. I lay out my one and only ground rule for the students “no physical violence” and ask the students if they have any “rules they need us to operate by in order to make the space productive.” Leah quickly chimes in “I need people to tell the truth,” as she shoots a look of aggravation at Stacy.  “Okay” I say, “Can we agree to these rules?” The girls nod and we begin.

The next 20 minutes are full of the girls passing the moose back and forth telling their side of the story. I keep a close eye on the students’ body language and their tone of voice, walking the fine line of letting the students express how they are truly feeling but at the same time not allowing the conflict to blow up.  While the students do most of the talking, I intervene a few times to remind the students to listen to one another, use “I statements” rather than accuse one another, and to acknowledge the hurt and pain each of the students is feeling.

Having met with each of the students individually the previous day I know what stands at the center of the conflict: Leah feels betrayed by Stacy because they used to be good friends but lately Stacy has been hanging out with another crowd…and apparently spreading rumors about Leah. While this specific conflict may seem petty, irrelevant, or insignificant to me as an adult; the hurt, betrayal, disrespect, and vulnerability that these students are experiencing is likely not unfamiliar to any of us. Most of us have been there, because unfortunately pain is a part of life and learning to heal, restore, and resolve the painful situations we have and mistakes we make in life are part of us being healthy, whole, and successful people.

Twenty one minutes into the Peace Circle Stacy looks Leah in the eye and says “Look I’m sorry.  I don’t really want to fight you. I don’t dislike you; things have just changed in our friendship.” With this I am reminded why I do this work: because bringing Restorative Justice into schools creates a place for young people to learn about, practice, and implement restoration which leads to them living into the best versions of themselves. No, Stacy and Leah did not completely “fix” their friendship, but they learned about how to navigate a difficult situation in a way that involves critical conversation, honesty, and forgiveness rather than threats, gossip, and physical violence – something most of us are lucky to learn after a lifetime of work!

Umoja’s staff this year alone have seen over 800 students in our Peace Rooms.  The stories they hear from students contain pain, hurt, anger and regrets. The work they do with these students gives them a space for their truths to be heard, where the healing process can begin, and students can move forward, rather than backwards, from their experiences.

There are certainly numerous benefits to the work we do in Umoja’s Peace Rooms, including teaching students critical social-emotional and communication skills, allowing students to resolve conflicts in school before they escalate into potentially violent situations, and creating an alternative to traditional discipline systems which tend to push students out of schools by assigning suspensions. However, when I drive home at night, the moments that keep me inspired are those where I’ve felt and seen the paradigm shift; where I’ve seen students and teachers leaving Peace Room conversations realizing that they are more courageous, stronger versions of themselves than they ever thought possible; shifting from a place of anger towards a place of healing and restoration.