....After coffee and donuts in a large meeting room, we arranged our chairs in a circle around a centerpiece of colorful talismans or tokens and a peace candle. Susan lit the candle while holding a colorful woven bookmark.
She explained the rules: Only the person holding the bookmark could talk. Everyone else would listen and not interrupt and the bookmark would be passed to the next person wanting to speak. Everything said in the peace circle was deemed confidential. No gossiping allowed! And, of course, cell phones were turned off.
Our leader asked three questions: What we liked most and least about ourselves, the city of Evanston, and our ability to create change. One by one, people who were complete strangers to me, some just teenagers, shared their hopes and dreams, their fears and frustrations, confident that the others were listening respectfully and without interrupting or passing judgment. (Remember that rule of confidentiality? I can’t tell you what was said.)
Next, the four peer jury teens gave us examples of how the peace circle concepts worked in resolving school-based crimes. Let’s say a student shoved his teacher against the desk, in an argument over a cell phone. If police intervene, this becomes battery on a school board employee, and in Florida that’s a felony. Instead, a peer jury of trained students is convened, the offender participates in a peace circle and then acknowledges the harm he caused. Did the teacher lose face in the classroom? Did other students get upset and distracted from learning? Was there an injury?
Once the harm is acknowledged, the offender and peer jurors discuss how to repair the harm. The offender makes suggestions, guided by the jurors. Of course, a letter of apology. Then, perhaps the offender could come to school early and help the teacher set up the classroom. Or, if he or she is flunking the class, maybe getting some tutoring would make him a more engaged student. A contract is written and if the student performs, no charges are filed.
The statistics are compelling. Evanston High School has a 97 percent success rate for completed peer jury agreements. The peer jury has helped avoid more than 300 suspensions in just two years.
This is not a substitute for police or court diversion models or for youth courts which convene after an arrest. The Evanston peer jury model operates at an earlier stage on true restorative justice principles: the community helps the offender recognize, acknowledge and repair the harm.