There were 10 of us in a large room, sitting in a ring of comfortable chairs encircling a large table. Late afternoon sunlight caught the red hair and freckles of a 15-year-old student (we’ll call her Sarah) as she tilted her head back slightly to keep tears from escaping.

This was my first Restorative Justice (RJ) Council and everyone at the table was sharing how they were affected by Sarah’s choice to drink on the [student government weekend] trip. Our principal had to call Sarah’s parents, drive her back to Seattle and miss a lot of the retreat. The 11th-grade student who facilitated this council meeting, Ryan Thon, shared about how alcoholism had affected his own family, and the pain he felt seeing Sarah drunk. Sarah’s parents shared how scared they were to get a call from the principal in the middle of the night.

Sarah had her boyfriend there as a student ally. He wanted the group to know that she was a good person, that she has been depressed lately and that everyone makes mistakes when they are young.

When it came back around to Sarah, she said, “I never realized how many people I affected. I kinda just thought I was hurting myself. I didn’t mean to mess up the trip. I was invited by student government as a guest and I disrespected everyone there. I shouldn’t have drank. I think drinking is just like an escape for me, but now my problems are even worse.”

Sarah was asked to further reflect on what she was thinking at the time of her decision, what she was feeling as well as how she thought and felt about the event now that some time had passed.

Then — and this was my favorite part of RJ — we were all asked to write down as many positive qualities about Sarah as we could think of and share them. These would serve as a reminder to her of her importance, her strengths, her contribution to our school community, as well as help us in creating three contract items for her to complete. These RJ contracts are a way for students to repair caused harm. In addition, they often help students avoid a suspension or other forms of traditional discipline.

During our circle time, as we shared qualities that we saw in her, things like creativity, leadership, her ability in math and science, her strength, she was no longer able to hold back her tears.

“I just thought you were all going to yell at me. Hearing how much you all see in me, I just feel like ... I really let all of you down,” she said softly.

But now Sarah was being presented with a way to repair some of the relationships that she had hurt. Sarah and the rest of us brainstormed things she could do to eliminate the root causes of her harmful choices, heal relationships with fellow students and improve her chances of graduating on time.

When asked to reflect on her experience with Restorative Justice, she wrote to me, “My experience was one of the most effective disciplinary approaches that I have ever been confronted with. It made me understand how my actions affected people not only directly, but how my actions set off a series of events. Seeing this reality and being given a second chance made me so thankful.

“Ever since these events I have excelled in high school, have felt closer to my community, and brought me closer to the people I affected. To this day, when harm happens to me or my community I try to look at all sides of the story, express my emotions, and listen to other people’s and look for a positive outcome.”

RJ is messy, tough and personal. It is beautiful, rewarding and just. I have been part of this journey with many students since working with Sarah, yet I will always remember the profound change that occurred that day sitting in a circle as Sarah’s community, the afternoon sunlight cutting across the room, turning golden at dusk.

Excerpted from the article by David Levine in Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.