Christina Olstad, Assistant Director of Residential Education, University of Vermont
Presented by Stacey Miller in a plenary session on August 1, 2012, at the 15th IIRP World Conference, Building a Restorative Practices Learning Network, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA, August 1-3, 2012
Without question, restorative practices has its roots in the field of restorative justice. Originating in the 1970s as an accountability tool that allows victims to be heard and offenders to understand their impact, restorative justice is a complement to conventional criminal justice processes, focused on repairing harm, rather than only on punishing offenders. Several decades later many student conduct offices on college campuses adopted restorative justice as a key component to their conduct philosophies and methods of traditional sanctioning; however, there has been a shift to not only focus on repairing harm, but to find ways to proactively build community. At the University of Vermont, the Department of Residential Life has used restorative practices as an innovative community development model to cultivate communities of care and mutual respect. This article explains the connections between restorative justice and restorative practices and will highlight how restorative practices is used in residential environments.
The Connections between Justice and Practices
If restorative practices (RP) was a child, its parent would no doubt be restorative justice (RJ). Developed in the 1970s, it became a new way of looking at the criminal justice system, focused on repairing harm done to those impacted by negative criminal behavior. “Restorative Justice is a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible” (Zehr, 2002, p. 37). “Restorative Justice is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders” (the victim, the perpetrator, and their communities of care). “Some of the programs and outcomes typically identified with restorative justice include: victim offender mediation; conferencing; circles; victim assistance; ex-offender assistance; restitution, and community service” (restorativejustice.org).
It is clear through standard definitions that restorative justice is a responsive process focused on repairing harm; and in some cases where it already exists, repairing relationships. Restorative practices is similar to restorative justice because it encompasses very similar approaches to repairing harm, but different, in that it also makes significant efforts to proactively build and establish relationships before issues arise. “The restorative practices movement seeks to develop good relationships and restore a sense of community in an increasingly disconnected world” (Costello, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 2009, p. 7). Through the development of relationships, members of a community establish practices that allow them to share their perspectives, hear the perspectives of others and generate communal values, which should ultimately help them feel safer within that community. Developing these relationships proactively often makes it easier to confront, address, and communicate discomfort with individuals and groups who have caused harm.
The fundamental hypothesis of restorative practices is that people are “happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes when those in authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them” (Wachtel & Wachtel, p. 15). The four guiding principles of restorative practices include an understanding of the Social Discipline Window as a leadership model, fair process, psychology of affect and the compass of shame. Together these concepts set up the foundation of restorative practices and when used effectively these guiding tools have the potential to build relationship capital between students in residential settings.
The Social Discipline Window
The Social Discipline Window (see Figure 1) is a leadership model that focuses on how individuals exercise their authority and its two axes include control (i.e., expectations, structure, or discipline) and support (encouragement or nurturing). In order to be restorative, one must seek to do things with (restorative) rather than to (punitive), for (permissive) or not (neglectful) at all; and if the way you exercise your authority is not naturally doing things with others, you will have to increase your levels of control and/or support in order to become restorative. The Social Discipline Window is important to understand because it offers users a clear visual for how people commonly exercise their authority, and identifies areas for growth and improvement. If a person can identify where they most naturally fall within the model, they can immediately understand how to improve their leadership to be less punitive, permissive or neglectful, which increases their capacity to empower others.
While the Social Discipline Window explains how to exercise your authority, fair process ensures that you have a structure to operate in the with/restorative box. Three components of fair process, delineated in a much-cited Harvard Business Review article are (as cited in Costello, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 2010 p. 14):
- Engagement—Involving individuals in decisions that affect them, by listening to their views and genuinely taking the opinions into account;
- Explanation—Explaining the reasoning behind a decision to everyone who has been involved or who is affected by it;
- Expectation Clarity—Making sure that everyone clearly understands a decision and what is expected of them in the future.
By using fair process as a means to facilitate discussion and decision making, leaders can exercise their authority in transparent, healthy and engaging ways, and more easily exercise restorative leadership.
Psychology of Affect
“The late Silvan S. Tomkins writings about the psychology of affect (Tomkins, 1962, 1963, 1991) asserts that human relationships are best and healthiest when there is free expression of affect—or emotion—minimizing the negative, maximizing the positive, but allowing for free expression [of both]. Donald Nathanson (1998) … adds that it is through the mutual exchange of expressed affect that we build community, creating the emotional bonds that tie us all together” (as cited in Costello, Wachtel & Wachtel, 2010, p. 16.). By understanding the psychology of affect (see Figure 2), we understand better that in order for residential communities to be healthy and high functioning there need to be authentic displays of happiness, excitement, care, concern, frustration and discomfort, which often lead to higher levels of trust and accountability.
The Compass of Shame
All humans experience shame and process it differently. How shame manifests itself in residential communities is complicated and multifaceted. “Tomkins  defined shame as occurring anytime that our experience of the positive affects (enjoyment–joy and interest–excitement) is interrupted” (as cited in Costello, Wachtel & Wachtel, 2010, p.18). This happens endlessly in residential environments. e.g., a student is playing their music loudly and is asked to turn it down; students are playing ball in the hall and are asked to stop so that they do not damage facilities; a student is asked to remove their illegal pet because it is a violation of the pet policy; or a student is confronted when they are walking through the hallway with an open container of alcohol. All of these examples are situations in which students are experiencing some level of positive affect (listening to music, playing with friends, loving their pet or drinking socially), which is then interrupted—most likely by a staff member.
When human beings experience shame (the interruption of positive affect), they typically react in one of four ways (see Figure 3):
- Withdrawal—isolation of one’s self, i.e., running and hiding
- Attack self—self-put down or self-harm
- Avoidance—denial of some kind
- Attack other—lashing out verbally or physically or blaming others
Residential life staff members often bear the brunt of these responses to shame and have to deal with disgruntled, unhappy and in extreme situations, belligerent residents. The Compass of Shame is important to understand because it provides context for the behaviors that staff often experience from students. By understanding the Compass of Shame, it supports staff in not taking these behaviors personally, but also helps them work toward resolving the conflict, repairing harm, and reintegrating individuals back into the community quickly, regardless of how major or minor the offense.
When the guiding principles of restorative practices are aligned in explicit ways, they allow both leaders and community members to have a voice. It can also be a powerful tool for building and sustaining healthy communities, while laying a solid foundation for addressing harm and wrongdoing. The next section of this article will discuss the Restorative Practices Continuum and proactive ways to develop community.
Proactively Building Residential Communities with Restorative Practices
In his 1993 book, What Matters in College: Four Critical Years Revisited, Astin asserts, “The student’s peer group is the single most potent source of influence on growth and development during the undergraduate years” (p. 398), which Piper (1996) also described as “peer-to-peer context.” As student affairs practitioners, we see this statement play out through the development of residential communities and witness the power and importance of getting students to share their stories. When students hear positive, but especially negative, messages about their behavior from each other, the impact is exponentially stronger, which often expedites positive behavioral changes. Individuals are more receptive to hearing from members of their peer group and feel more pressure to conform to the community standards they set for each other. However, an important component of peer-to-peer context is the relationship itself. In order for peer-to-peer context to have any influence, there must be established relationship or social capital that can be drawn upon in times of conflict and crisis. But how do residence life and housing professionals assist in the facilitation of building relationships between unrelated parties, living in close proximity to one another, while in the throes of various stages of emotional, cognitive and identity development? How do resident assistants (RAs) or resident/community advisors (R/CAs) “who are in the inherently ambiguous position of simultaneously being peer and support” (Miller & Wachtel, 2012, p. 5) feel comfortable in their role as a community facilitator while also confidently exercising their authority?
In the book Building Campus Community: Restorative Practices in Residential Life, Miller & Wachtel (2012) state, “The fundamental challenge faced by residential life staff at colleges and universities [is] how to build healthy communities quickly and effectively so that students can live together productively and harmoniously” (p. 4). What complicates this fundamental challenge further is that historically, when residential life professionals trained student staff members on how to “build community,” it is most often done in an implicit manner without explicit methodology. What was once considered a natural and organic process is no longer the case, and just telling RAs to go “build community” is no longer enough. While student affairs professionals have always been able to identify exceptional student-leaders, those who intuitively know how to connect and build strong residential communities, most RAs struggle with knowing exactly how to make this happen. RAs need explicit tools in order to bring students together, hold conversations and develop a sense of community.
Entering its third year of implementation, the University of Vermont’s Department of Residential Life has found restorative practices to be an innovative and explicit community development framework for helping establish healthy communities, addressing harm and repairing relationships. The basic premise of restorative practices is that people change their behavior based on the relationships they form with one another, which affirms Astin’s assertion that the peer group is the most potent source of influence, and also connects strongly with Piper’s peer-to-peer context (1996). “Restorative practices is the study of building social capital and achieving social discipline through participatory learning and decision making” (Wachtel & Wachtel, 2012, p. 17), which not only empowers the assigned leader, but the communities they serve.
Restorative Practices Continuum
Affective Statements and Questions
The Restorative Practices Continuum (see Figure 4) illustrates the range of ways in which individuals can proactively build community and address wrongdoing. Starting with the most informal—affective statements and affective questions—these practices provide individuals with the ability to share their feelings approvingly or disapprovingly. Affective statements and affective questions are powerful because people change their behavior based on the bonds they have formed with others; and using these practices helps individuals understand the positive or negative impact of they are having on others. Examples of affective statements are:
Approving Affective Statements
- “I am so happy that you are member of our community.”
- “I really appreciated your contributions to our circle discussion this evening.”
- <“I’m very thankful that you contacted me about your roommate’s injury; it potentially saved her life.”
Disapproving Affective Statements
- “I was really scared when I heard you screaming outside my front door; I thought something was happening to you.”
- “I feel really disrespected by you, because I am trying to speak to you and you keep walking away.”
- “I was sad when I heard you were involved in that incident.”
Affective questions are those that allow the person being asked to internally reflect on their behavior and/or feelings regarding any particular issue or incident. Examples of affective questions are:
- “How do you think the community has been impacted by what you did?”
- “I saw that you were involved in an incident last night. What happened?”
- “What do you think you need to do in order to make amends with your community?”
Small Impromptu Conferences
Small impromptu conferences can be used to respond to a variety of situations and can occur anywhere. While conducting community walks of the residence halls, staff members can utilize small impromptu conferences to get groups of students to understand the impact of their behavior.
Circles, which will be discussed extensively in this article, provide a formal way for communities to communicate and share how they are experiencing their residential environment. During a circle, a talking piece is used to signify who has the floor and is usually something of value to the community. At the University of Vermont, RAs have used mascots and stress balls as talking pieces. It is recommended to have this item be small but significant to the community.
Conferences are at the most formal end of the continuum and because they respond to wrongdoing, represent the restorative justice side of restorative practices. Conferences are typically conducted by a staff member who is trained to facilitate this type of meeting between the respondent(s), complainant(s) and their communities of care (i.e., friends, family, etc.). Conferences are voluntary in nature, and require that the respondent have already accepted responsibility for their behavior. Often, because of the nature and severity of the incident leading to a conference, there is an extensive preparation time needed to prepare all parties for the conversation; however, the primary goal of a conference is to repair harm and (when it already exists) restore relationships. In this case, and where applicable, a conference can either take the place of a formal hearing or be used in conjunction with traditional campus conduct processes and sanctions.
On the Restorative Practices Continuum (see Figure 4) circles are one of the most effective ways to build community, and at the University of Vermont, RAs are trained to facilitate circles as a way to begin developing their communities. According to Costello, Wachtel, & Wachtel (2010):
Circles, by their very structure, convey certain important ideas and values without the need for discussion:
- Equality—Literally everyone in the circle has equal positioning.
- Safety and trust—You can see everyone in a circle, so nothing is hidden.
- Responsibility—Everyone has a chance to play a role in the outcome of the circle.
- Facilitation—The circle reminds the leader to facilitate rather than lecture.
- Ownership—Collectively, the participants feel the circle is theirs.
- Connections—These are built as everyone listens to everyone else’s responses
In the circle everyone can look one another in the eye. Students get equal time and attention, and they learn to trust each other and feel safe (Costello, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 2010, pp. 22–23).
At the start of the academic year, what typically happens on most campuses is that first-year students arrive before the returning student population. Aside from icebreakers, which help with immediate name recognition and provide opportunities for new students to feel relatively comfortable, RAs hold a first-year circle as a way to begin establishing relationships within their new community. During three go-arounds the RA ask the following questions:
- What are you hoping for in your first year here?
- What are your concerns?
- What are some of your long-term hopes and dreams?
While this circle activity may seem simple, it sends a meta-communication that every voice matters, and that this is a caring community. It also establishes connections of interest (i.e., music, sports, majors, etc.) and that they are not alone in their most immediate concerns (i.e., Will I fit in? Can I handle the academic workload? Will I make friends?). The circle can galvanize a community quickly, giving residents things to talk about and ways to get to know each other.
This first-year circle coupled with other opening weekend activities and educational programming lays the groundwork for positive community development and relationship building for first-year students. Regardless of whether or not first-year students are in first-year-only communities or whether they are integrated with upper-class student populations, once the entire residential population arrives and settles in, the RA will facilitate another circle for the whole community. This circle, which is informally titled the initial community circle, is an opportunity for all students on the floor or hall to continue to get to know each other and begin establishing community standards. During two go-arounds the RA asks the following questions:
- What do you think a good residential community looks like?
- What kinds of issues and behaviors might interfere with us having a good community?
Much like the first-year circle, these two very simple questions invoke rich dialogue from students, who, without being poked or prodded by staff, instinctually discuss many of the positive and negative aspects of living in community. It allows for all voices to be heard and provides informal values clarification for the group; and while students may not agree with each other on all aspects of what a good community looks like, they immediately become aware that other students may share different values and have different expectations about their community environment.
To conclude the initial community circle, the large group circle breaks down into smaller groups of no more than eight students and processes one final question: What can we as individuals and as a group do to hold each other accountable when issues arise in our community? Each group designates a note taker to document the conversation and will share that information with the large group. Surprisingly, what many RAs experience is the overlap and similarities of the responses between their groups.
Unlike traditional first-year community meetings where RAs spend more time lecturing at residents about policies and consequences invoking the to style of leadership, circles reinforce the with style, emphasizing that students listen to one another and take responsibility for their own community with their RA as a guide. What is important about this circle is that it arouses the true nature of a community-standards process where everyone participates and shares their perspective. The subtle messages shared within these initial go-arounds provide a framework for the RA to begin to create a true set of standards for their community. More importantly, the RA’s role as community facilitator is reinforced and the entire community is empowered. As is typical with most communities, residents will test boundaries and violate established standards illustrating the stages of group development, forming, storming, norming and performing (Tuckman, 1965). In response, the RAs ongoing role is to provide space for residents to continue discussions, hold each other accountable and modify standards that work better for their community. Depending on the issue, this can be done through either proactive or responsive circles.
Other Themes for Proactive Circles
Heath and Safety Inspections
As is customary at most colleges, health and safety inspections are conducted periodically to ensure that spaces are free from fire and health hazards. While these inspections are often noted in a housing terms and conditions policy book, many students express concern and frustration with having their room entered into by residential life staff, because if visible policy violations are found they must be documented and followed up. While the nature of these inspections is most often benign, and the follow-up minor, these inspections have the potential to create distrust between residents and staff. A proactive circle can be used as a way to educate students about the health and safety policy, the process and the procedures staff must follow in order to enter and inspect spaces. It also gives residents an opportunity to share their feelings and concerns. This type of proactive circle can provide students information that should reduce their level of anxiety pre-inspection, and hopefully decrease the number of incidents that staff will need to confront and document.
Bias and hate incidents detract from the campus community and, to some, send a message that the community is not welcoming, accepting or safe. Bias incidents occur on all parts of a college campus but can have an exacerbated impact when they occur in residential halls as they violate the fundamental premise of home and community. A proactive circle can be used to discuss how students feel about this issue, set expectations and provide a framework for how staff members will respond to incidents. A proactive circle provides an opportunity for students to learn about bias and how it can negatively impact the community environment. Some examples of questions that could be asked in a proactive circle about bias are: What is bias? Have you ever experienced a bias incident, and if so, how did it make you feel? What impact do you think bias incidents will have on our community? These simple questions, coupled with responses from students, can reinforce positive social norms and tie back into Piper’s peer-to-peer context. In addition, a student who might have unknowingly thought about doing something that would constitute a bias incident may be deterred, having heard from their peer group the impact such behavior would have on individuals and their community as a whole.
Whether it is in a traditional-style residence hall or a suite-style community, inevitably issues of cleanliness will arise between residential students. Proactive circles can be used to provide a space for students to talk about expectations around communal living. Questions that could be used in a proactive circle are: What is the thing you like best about sharing communal space? What is the thing you like least about sharing communal space? What can we as individuals commit to when using communal spaces, i.e., lounges, kitchens, laundry and bathroom? These questions have the potential to encourage positive behaviors and can be referenced when standards are not being upheld.
The childhood tradition of Halloween is usually resurrected in college by students looking to enjoy themselves while also being anonymous. Dressing up, drinking and pranks are commonplace and can have a negative impact on both participants and non-participants. Providing a space for students to discuss this cultural tradition will hopefully encourage them to make good choices that evening and potentially minimize negative behavior. Questions that could be asked during a proactive circle are: What are you looking most forward to this Halloween? What are things that could detract from that experience? What can we do as a community to contribute to everyone having a positive Halloween experience?
Unsafe Campus Tradition
Almost every college campus has an unsanctioned and/or unsafe student tradition that administrators try to address. Regardless of the tradition, a proactive circle can be used as a way to discuss the event and the potential impact it will have on individuals and the community. Allowing students to discuss the tradition ahead of time, as well as providing them a space to share how they may be impacted by one another, is a way for standards to be set and for community members to feel empowered to hold each other accountable.
Admitted-Student Visit Days
One of the biggest challenges of admitted-student visit days is ensuring that the campus community is welcoming to students who are academically admitted but not officially committed to the school. To proactively ensure that residents understand the purpose and importance of these days to the overall well-being of the institution, a community circle can serve to provide students with a space to discuss how they want to represent themselves and their campus.
Circle Challenges and Solutions
One challenge RAs or professional staff members may face is feeling restricted by the questions suggested by residence-life administrators, especially if they are reading from a list of questions for the first time. This is easily addressed through encouraging staff to modify the questions or create their own questions. The wording is not as imperative as the spirit of the questions and that they are affective in nature.
The goal of offering affective questions ahead of time is to provide RAs with a framework, but staff should encourage them to adapt the questions to their own communication style. A simple example could be changing a question from “What does an ideal community look like?” to “What does a [good/great/healthy/respectful/inclusive/happy] community look like?” There are no prescribed questions with circles, and they can be developed with several staff members coming together to discuss specific issues that are occurring in a community. One of the most important components to stress with facilitators is the tone in which the question is asked, as the same question can take on different meanings when the tone is adjusted.
One concern staff often express with circles is whether or not participants will actually be respectful and authentic when they participate. At times, staff members may experience someone in a circle who, because of their own discomfort, chooses to posture or behave in ways that try to detract from the circle. Making jokes or making light of a topic sometimes occurs but should not be seen as detrimental to the circle conversation for two reasons. First, students have the right to share their perspective, even when it does not align with others’ perspectives or viewpoints, and to try and control these types of comments is antithetical to the circle process. “Wise cracks,” jokes and what may appear to be an “off-center” comment is what actually keeps the conversation authentic, because students realize they can actually say what they really think or feel.
Secondly, and what happens most often if someone persists in distracting others with inappropriate comments is that eventually someone in the circle will respond and hold that person accountable for his or her comment. An example of this occurred when a single-gender community of men joined a single-gender community of women to participate in a joint circle about vandalism. In response to one of the questions, one of the men made light of the issue by saying that “boys will be boys.” In response, one of the women stated: “I’m not OK that you just said that. It does not excuse the behavior.” While one student shared his honest feeling and/or opinion, another was also able to share her perspective. As a result, a serious tone was reestablished in the circle and the exchange reinforced the significance of the issue.
After that circle, staff noted a visible reduction in the amount of vandalism in that building and that they did not have to facilitate another responsive circle about the issue. The point of this example is to emphasize how students within a circle alter their peer’s behavior through personal comments and stories. While someone may try to detract from the authenticity of the circle, other students, who may be taking the process more seriously, will naturally intervene if and when they feel strongly about an issue and are provided the space to voice their opinion.
Another way to proactively address this type of issue is by dispersing staff members within a circle and to build “reset” capacity. This means if there are two staff members facilitating a circle, they pay attention to who they sit next to and spread out from each other so that they can also participate in the role of sharing their perspectives about how they are personally impacted by an incident or event. It is also all right for a staff member to use affirmative statements to emphasize the importance of an issue. The most important aspect to running a circle is to set the tone at the beginning and when necessary build capacity with other staff members or resident allies before the circle begins. When staff members take the process seriously, the community often follows suit, which can make the circle a very powerful community-building tool.
Spaces for Circles
On many college campuses, space is at a premium and lounges have been converted to triples or quads. Floor and hall communities range from 30 on the low end to 75 on the high end. Space is an important logistic to consider prior to coming together for a circle. Large lounges can usually accommodate groups of up to about 60 and can accommodate more if you have two concentric circles, i.e., one inside the other. Hallways also work to accommodate large groups; however, staff should be cognizant whether the hallway is wide enough for members of a community to easily see and hear each other. Another option is to hold a community meeting in a large main-building lounge, multipurpose room or recreation space. In the event staff members need to hold multiple circles for an entire building, staggering the times of circles is suggested.
Length of Circles
The attention span of young adults is short. A recent study about technology use in college stated: “38% of college students cannot go more than 10 minutes without looking at their email, tablet, laptop, or smart phone.” This fact alone has the potential to make a 30-50 person circle challenging. It is critical to strike the right balance between maintaining the circle’s authenticity with its length of time. Circles that go on too long too often can have a detrimental impact on their long-term credibility and may impact future participation. However, circles should never be prematurely stopped for fear that it is running too long.
The key to ensuring that a circle does not lose the attention of its audience is to make certain the RA comes prepared to facilitate it with no more than two to three questions. Each should be designed to invoke affective responses, because the goal of a circle is the mutual sharing of affect. RAs and other staff members also have to be confident when conducting circles knowing when to directly address low energy, distracting side conversations, or when to move on to the next question. However, this must be done without compromising the circle’s integrity. Depending on the size of a circle, the way an RA can do this is have one half of the circle answer one question and the second half of the circle answer the next. Another idea is to modify certain questions to only ask for a one-word response, e.g., “Using one word, describe how you feel about the vandalism in our community?” One-word responses are time efficient, allowing the talking piece to move quickly around the circle, and often hold the same clout as a full sentence or statement. Responses like “I’m frustrated/pissed/angry/ upset/tired/sad/done/mad” help a community quickly understand that others have similar feelings about an issue, which can allow the RA to quickly move the group into problem-solving mode. Circles that are effective in establishing the temperament of a community quickly are circles that students will readily and continuously participate in.
Size of Circles
If staff members feel like a circle is getting too large, they are strongly encouraged to break the group up into two smaller circles and pair up with other staff members to help facilitate the conversation.
Some campuses have a high student-to-RA ratio and may be concerned about utilizing RP on their campus. While student-to-RA ratios vary from campus to campus, RP can always be used to provide a framework for students to talk with each other about issues occurring in their communities. Once exposed to the concept and idea of the circles, students often circle up automatically to address community issues with each other. This was a pleasant outcome seen at the University of Vermont: students gathered together in circles to address issues and utilized components of RP in impromptu community meetings.
A solution to address concerns around size, space and authenticity of participants is to have RAs pair up and help each other facilitate community circles. This is especially effective for first-time RAs, who may be nervous about facilitating a circle conversation for the first time. This works best when returning/more experienced RAs sit across from new ones in the circle and support each other in creating an authentic circle environment.
Responding to Harm and Restoring Relationships with Restorative Practices
Residential life staff members respond to and manage a variety of issues throughout any given year which include, but are not limited to vandalism, bias, alcohol parties, illegal substances, cleanliness and disrespectful behavior. It is imperative that incidents that impact the community be addressed in a timely manner so that they do not continue to escalate. Providing space for students to engage in conversations about the state of the community and share how they are affected is critical when responding to concerning behavior and restoring relationships. Restorative practices provides an avenue for students to share how they are feeling, which can also create an opportunity for the community to revisit their standards.
At the University of Vermont, during the month of March, a staff member was the direct target of a homophobic bias incident. The staff member was hurt by the incident and wanted an opportunity to share his feelings and frustration with the community where he lived. A mandatory community meeting was called and the community circled up to discuss the incident.
Due to the severity of the incident, an Assistant Director of Residential Life facilitated the circle and set the tone by sharing what happened and how she was disappointed and frustrated this had occurred in one of her residential communities. She also mentioned how this bias act is incongruent with the University of Vermont’s Our Common Ground values statement. The first question she asked for the first go-around was: How do you feel about the state of your community that this type of incident could and did occur here? In responding to the prompt, several students disclosed a personal history of being bullied or harassed and how they thought these things did not happen in college. Others were really upset by the incident and that a staff member was targeted.
The staff member shared how surprised he was with being targeted because he really enjoys his relationships with the men in his community and how hurt he was. He also mentioned that as he departs from UVM that he is saddened to leave with this incident occurring in the final months of his graduate program. One student shared, “I was upset when the vending machine was broken into earlier this semester because it meant that I would no longer have access to candy for the rest of the year … but we can replace the broken glass on the vending machine, we can not replace the glass on Sam’s [a pseudonym] hurt feelings.” Another student shared that he transferred to the University of Vermont due to the commitment to social justice and diversity and was really upset to hear this incident had occurred on their floor.
The second prompt in the circle was: What do you need from this community, and what can you personally commit to in order to make this community safe? The men in the circle provided responses about how they wanted to live in community, and each member talked about being more aware of incidents occurring in the community. After the circle many men stayed around and shared their concern about the incident personally with Sam. Overall, Sam shared that he felt heard. He was positive about the circle and was pleased with the responses from the members of his floor community.
As is evident through this example of a bias-response circle, restorative practices is a powerful way to effectively engage in difficult conversations with students. Students share their personal experiences and connect with each other in deep and meaningful ways, and if the individuals who committed the incident are sitting in the circle, they will now hear how others were impacted and, in all likelihood, not engage in that behavior again.
Vandalism is an issue that student-affairs administrators address regularly. The circle format provides an ideal approach for the community members to share what their experiences have been like living in a community, because peer-to-peer context is crucial for positive behavioral changes. During responsive circles to vandalism students have shared, “I am too embarrassed to look our custodial staff members in the eyes due to the state of our community.” One student talked about his frustration when he would go to use the shower head, which had been ripped off. Another student said, “If you were at home and you vomited in the shower, would you just turn around and walk away for someone else to clean it up? I don’t think so, so why is that OK to do here?” In circles, students are real with each other and share how they are affected by their community’s vandalism. Students share what is really going on in the community and what they would like to see happen to address the issues. Students are able to problem-solve and have an increased ownership for the state of their community. Restorative practices allows all students a voice in the conversation instead of just a few vocal parties lecturing their peer group.
An example that illustrates the connection between proactive and responsive circles is an instance when a community had ongoing issues with vandalism, and a community circle was scheduled. On the night of the circle, at 8:55 p.m., residence life staff and the RA went to the floor community fully expecting to have to knock on doors and encourage students to attend the circle; to their surprise all of the men were already sitting out in the hallway in the circle format ready for the community circle to begin. The men of this community knew there were significant issues on their floor that needed to be addressed, and they already had a framework for how this conversation would happen. After the circle, in which many members shared solutions, the community had no incidents showing up in the custodial logs for six weeks, when in prior weeks there where incidents almost every weekend.
Accidental damage occurs in residential communities and can have a huge impact on the floor. A student is playing with a lighter in a residence hall room and negligently ignites a synthetic plant, which goes up in flames setting off the sprinkler head—dumping thousands of gallons of water into that room, the floor and communities below. In a separate incident, a student is using a balance board in the hallway, which flips up and hits the sprinkler head, causing the same result.
In each case, neither student intended to cause a flood, the evacuation of the building or responses from the fire department, police, residential life, facilities and custodial staff members. Because each student responsible came forward and agreed to participate in a restorative conference, each of the students who caused the flood had an opportunity to share their responses to: What happened? What were you thinking at the time? What have you thought about since? Who has been affected by what occurred and how? What do you need to do to make things right? The individuals responsible for the incident were also able to hear from those impacted, who shared responses to the following questions: What did you think when you realized what had happened? What impact has this incident had on you and others? What has been the hardest thing for you? What do you think needs to happen to make things right? The formal conference is a voluntary process for all parties involved and provides students the ability to repair harm and address needs and, for the offenders, an opportunity to be reintegrated back into the community.
The news of a student death on campus has a tremendous impact on the entire community. At the University of Vermont in the past two years we have experienced two deaths in our residential communities. Residential life staff members utilized restorative practices to provide opportunity for students to reflect and connect for support and resources.
During the first year that the Department of Residential Life was implementing restorative practices, a student committed suicide in a residence-hall room and was found by friends and a former roommate. Those students were tremendously shaken by the incident and held an impromptu circle with their RA to discuss how they were feeling about the death of their friend. Reflecting on the circle, the RA shared, “I collected them all together, and we had a circle in a separate room. There were a lot of emotions flying around. You could feel the uneasiness and confusion. I used the circle to understand how others were feeling. I let them know that it was okay to talk and that many people were probably feeling the same things they were feeling. It really helped” (Wachtel, 2011, p. 1).
Death by suicide brings up many emotions for students who have been impacted in various ways by suicide throughout their life. Students across campus were provided the opportunity through formal circles to come together, learn about campus resources, and share how they had been impacted, as well as what they needed from their community. Circles provided a space to process and support each other as they attempted to make sense of the tragic loss. Restorative practices provided the framework for these conversations to take place and allowed students to share how they were feeling in authentic ways. Many tears were shed in the community meetings and individuals were connected to the counseling center on campus. Reflecting back, the infusion of restorative practices on campus facilitated the creation of students coming together to care for one another, and to find the resources they needed to continue to ensure their well-being as students at the University of Vermont.
The loss of a student to an accidental death causes so many unanswered questions. Students were arriving back from spring break and around midnight a student went into his room and noticed his roommate lying awkwardly on the bed. They had just been hanging out earlier and now he was frantically calling campus rescue and friends for help. Police and campus rescue arrived shortly thereafter to transport the student to the hospital. Unfortunately, he passed away before arriving at the hospital.
This student was an incredibly popular and highly engaged leader who was connected across campus. He had just arrived back from an alternative spring break trip earlier in the day and students were in shock over the loss of their friend. Campus administrators provided an opportunity for students to attend circles in the residence hall where he had lived. The circles were voluntary and administrators were not sure how many students would show up. In the 12 floor communities, the average attendance at the meetings was approximately 10–15 students, and in the circles, the questions that were asked were: How are you feeling/doing? What do you need from the community at this time? What can you provide the community? Students shared a variety of responses for each question. In one circle, a student shared, “I am not sure if I should stuff this and not deal with it, as I have done in the past around losing someone close to me, or if I should allow myself to feel what I am feeling.” Another student mentioned, “I came tonight because I see so many of my peers grieving and I don’t know what to do to support them; I just don’t know what I could say that could help.”
During the circles, there were many tears and positive memories shared. One student shared, “The hard part is that if this had happened to anyone else, I know he [the student who passed away] would be taking care of our community … that was just the way he was.” The circle format allowed students to process and connect with each other about their peer, friend and floor mate who had passed away. Restorative practices provides the framework to facilitate caring communities and this was evident through the voluntary circles provided to students.
Restorative practices provides a framework for addressing staff issues that are impacting productivity. A colleague from another division, who works with a large group of student-leaders, wanted to address issues with her staff and consulted with the Department of Residential Life on how to use restorative practices. After several conversations, she proposed a circle for her group of 60 student-leaders so that they could discuss staff and team dynamics and how each person was being impacted. The staff circle brought to light many of the frustrations that the student-leaders were experiencing with each other; but the power of the circle was that the students were telling each other how they were being impacted by the behaviors of their peers, not their supervisor. During one of the circle go-arounds, one of the students shared, “In my internship I work with delinquent and troubled youth, and lately I feel like I’m at my internship when I am here.” This staff circle was powerful for this staff because it fostered better communication and created a new accountability measure, which led to increased productivity of the team for the remainder of the semester.
Circles can also provide a way for staff members to process trauma and crisis. When responding to the accidental and tragic death of a prominent student leader, who was highly involved and connected across campus, staff members held circles for students to process how they were doing/feeling about the untimely death of their peer. What is important to realize is that not just students, but also staff members, needed a space to deal with their feelings. So a voluntary staff responsive circle was conducted to support professional and graduate-level staff members of the team.
In the afterword of the book Restorative Circles in Schools: Building Community and Enhancing Learning (Costello, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 2010), Ted Wachtel wrote:
Circles are as old as the hills. Human beings’ earliest discussions were held in circles around the fire. Somewhere along the way as our numbers grew and our social organizations became more complex, we moved out of egalitarian circles into hierarchical structures. Now, often from a raised platform, leaders typically face others seated in rows, with most of the group looking at the backs of the other people in front of them.
Yet, in a variety of settings and for a variety of purposes, we are rediscovering the power of circles. For all our technological advances, we have come to realize that we lost something along the way—a very simple and effective technology that fosters mutual understanding and healing in a way that often seems magical.
In circles we face each other and speak respectfully, one person at a time, diminishing the feeling of disconnectedness that permeates our modern world restoring the sense of belonging that constitutes healthy human community. We may find that this ancient form of social discourse helps us address our greatest challenges.
This description of circles best summarizes how the University of Vermont’s Department of Residential Life has experienced restorative practices over the past several years. While technology continues to develop and lure students into a vortex of endless communication distractions, it has been the power and simplicity of circles that has helped us regain our sense of community. As professional staff members who have moved through the ranks of our respective fields, we have found no better tool to help residential life staff at all levels explicitly develop and maintain residential communities. While we have not implemented or executed restorative practices flawlessly, we continue to find more applications for its use and recognize the value in continuing to develop and share our newfound community development model with others.
About the Authors
Stacey A. Miller currently serves as the Director of Residential Life at the University of Vermont, a position she has held since 2003, and has over 20 years of professional experience in student affairs and higher education as both an administrator and instructor. She began her professional career at Stony Brook University, New York, where she also earned her Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences and Master of Arts in Liberal Studies degrees. She received her Doctorate of Education in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program from the University of Vermont. In addition to her administrative post, Dr. Miller has served as a lecturer for two graduate-level courses in the Higher Education and Student-Affairs Administration (HESA) program and the Master of Interdisciplinary Studies program.
Christina M. Olstad has served in various roles in student affairs and has over a decade of experience in residential education, student activities and leadership development. Dr. Olstad is currently an Assistant Director of Residential Education at the University of Vermont, a position she has held since 2007. She has held a variety of positions in residential life, student activities and leadership development at Augsburg College and at the University of New England prior to her time at the University of Vermont. While at the University of New England, she served as adjunct faculty to the psychology department and taught “Socio-Cultural Context of Human Development through the Life Span.” She has a Bachelor of Science in Social Work from Augsburg College, Master of Social Work from Augsburg College and Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from the University of Vermont.
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