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Brandon wasn’t sure at first that he wanted his case heard by his peers at Pittsfield.
He’d been in trouble before and the punishments, usually in-school suspension or having to show up for an all-day study hall on the weekend, were bearable. But this time things were different. Not only was Hope mad at him, but so was her father.
“Whenever I saw him I was thinking about what I did,” Brandon said. “It was hanging over me all the time.”
(When asked just how often he crossed paths with his classmate’s father in Pittsfield—a town where the population hovers around 4,500—Brandon laughed: “Like, every day. He’s my mailman.”)
Pittsfield’s justice-committee meetings are held in a circle. It’s expected that only one person has the floor at a time, and interruptions are discouraged. Early in the planning process, the Pittsfield students opted to write a loose outline for each meeting, including a list of questions that all parties would be expected to answer. The idea for a more formal script was dropped when the committee began its actual work and students realized it was limiting eye contact among the participants.
When the committee reviewed Brandon’s cellphone prank, Hope, as the affected party, was asked to speak first to describe the incident and how it affected her. Sitting across from Hope, Brandon was then given an opportunity to respond. The peer mediators questioned him: “What were you thinking when you took Hope’s phone?” “How do you feel about what’s happened?” “Who do you think has been affected by your actions?”
Those were tough questions to answer, Brandon said. It also wasn’t easy to hear Hope’s side of things.
“I felt like crap,” Brandon said. “I thought I was doing something funny, and then I realized how badly it affected her and her family, and I felt really bad. I thought what I was doing was a joke but it went too far.”
In addition to deciding that Brandon needed to make amends, the committee also determined that Hope had broken a school rule by having her cellphone out in class, and that she needed to take responsibility for that.
“That astonished Brandon,” recalled Jenny Wellington, who is in her fifth year teaching English at Pittsfield and advises the justice committee. “I think it also made the kids see that the process was more deliberate and thoughtful than just handing out punishments.”
To be sure, restorative justice isn’t an easy fix. It took time to convince Pittsfield’s broader community that the investment of resources would be worthwhile. There were multiple meetings with students and staff over the course of several years, as well as community forums to help parents prepare for the change.
“People were afraid this was going to be a ‘hippy-dippy-granola, nobody’s-going-to-get-into-trouble’ concept,” said Wellington. “This wouldn’t have been successful if we didn’t start slowly and make sure everyone was really on board.”