Virtual healing: Students at odds don't need to be in the same room to resolve conflict, repair harm


If technology has taught us anything, it’s that conflict, discord and bullying do not stop just because students are separated by homeschooling and physical distance.

The good news is that now, thanks to new technologies developed during the COVID-19 pandemic, students can receive support via online methods when impacted by bullying or peer conflict.

In a process called restorative conferencing, trained restorative justice facilitators serve as a neutral, understanding party to help support the victim in reaching a long-lasting solution.

While these conferences are traditionally held in person, Joel Friesz, the director of Youth Interventions at Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, says that the program now offers a virtual option for conferencing.

At its core, restorative conferencing boils down to a trained, neutral facilitator meeting individually with all parties involved to talk about the incident, explore how and why it happened and, ultimately, support each party to find effective ways to stop negative interactions and behaviors. In some cases, all involved would discuss the incident in the same room or web conference – but only in cases where the victim and his family felt safe and comfortable doing so.

Some students and families have accessed restorative conferencing to address situations of

verbal bullying, cyberbullying, physical bullying, harassment, theft and hate crimes.

And with so many types of bullying and peer conflicts that may warrant a conference, Friesz emphasized that restorative conferencing is a process uniquely tailored to each situation.

“Restorative conferencing is meant to be flexible enough to meet the individual needs of each family,” Friesz said. “It’s a structured process, but it’s not a rigid process.”

While each conference is different, parents can expect the process to include three parts:


Friesz

1. First, a facilitator will meet with the person who experienced the bullying or peer conflict to talk through the situation and how it affected them. As the person who was harmed guides the process, the facilitator supports them in developing a plan moving forward to make the bullying or conflict stop.

“We call them pre-meetings,” Friesz explained. “In counseling terms, it would be like your intake session. We just want to hear what has been going on and find some options for moving forward in a way that is going to provide a resolution.”

2. After the pre-meeting stage, many families decide to move forward with a face-to-face meeting (or, in COVID-19 times, a video-to-video meeting) with the person who caused the harm in the situation. However, Friesz stressed that these meetings are not required in the process.

“If a family looks into restorative conferencing, it doesn’t mean that they have to meet with the other party,” he said. “The meeting with the other party is just one of the options that could take place. There is no requirement or expectation for that. It’s really for the family to learn about the process and decide what is the right thing for them.”

If a face-to-face meeting takes place, the goal is to come out of the meeting with an agreement made by consensus of both parties about what can be done to move forward in a positive and helpful way.

3. After this agreement is reached, facilitators follow up with both parties to ensure that whatever resolution created is still in place.

“We know that not all things can be fixed with one meeting, so sometimes it takes time,” said Friesz. “Our facilitator really stays on a journey with the families until the victim feels that the situation has been resolved.”

While restorative justice or restorative conferencing may be unfamiliar concepts to many, Friesz emphasized that it is not a new process. Some North Dakota schools have been using restorative conferencing to handle peer conflicts for over 10 years, and the state’s justice system has been practicing restorative justice for more than 20 years.

Restorative conferencing continues to show much promise for providing long-term resolutions because the process is guided by the victim and aims to develop the “empathy muscle” in the person causing the hurtful behavior to ensure the negative behavior stops.

Restorative conferencing is offered free of charge. Parents who are concerned about their child’s peer relationships are encouraged to self-refer into the process by contacting Kelli Adams (kellia@lssnd.org).

Interested parents can also inquire via the form at lssnd.org/help.

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