The principal was greeting students on the steps of the school when I arrived.
His normally cheerful demeanor was slightly subdued as he told me about the two major incidents that had happened the day before, each one centered around one student, Justin, in particular. All of the students involved had already received their consequences. Three students - Chris, Steven, and Justin - had been suspended for the more serious occurrences.
The principal, who wanted to better understand the reasons behind the actions, was extremely dismayed by what he felt was a demonstrable lack of remorse for either on Justin's part.
When Justin was brought into the dean's office, his hands were shoved deep into the pockets of his light gray hoodie. His head was hung low and his face was as far back as possible from the drawstring opening.
Seated at the small, round conference table with the principal and I were two of the school's three deans and the school's restorative practices coordinator. On the table was a nearly full box of donuts, which Justin declined with a slow shake of his head when I offered him one. I introduced myself and told him that I was there to talk about what had led up to the fight between him and two of his good friends. He didn't look up and he didn't respond, but the slight shift of his body let me know that he was listening.
I shared with him the story I had previously heard from Chris, Steven, and the staff members in the room about the fight the day before. I told him I knew how the fight had been pre-arranged and how I honestly admired the fact that they had all decided to not advertise their beef via social media and had instead planned to meet up in a park some distance from the school - away from other friends, possible instigators, and opportunists who may have seen some benefit to ongoing tension.
I also told him that Chris and Steven had admitted to their attempts to mete out justice for a game that went horribly wrong. Justin had been part of a group of young men who, upon dismissal from school, transitioned from "harmless" horseplay into escalated after-school dares. What began with pushing each other turned into them pushing each other into unsuspecting passersby. It ended with Justin shoving one of his companions into an elderly woman, who subsequently fell to the ground. As they ran away laughing, still bumping into the crowded sidewalk's occupants, Justin provided one last example of the unthinkable and spit on a baby in a stroller.
His head lifted when I said that I agreed with Chris and Steven that what he had done was worthy of a schoolyard beat down. No one, not the adults and especially not Justin, had expected to hear that from me. But it would have been inauthentic of me to not acknowledge street code - you don't mess with the elderly or babies. And Justin had done both. "You know that was a violation, right?" He nodded a slow yes.
When I asked him what would make him spit on a baby, his eyes got wet and he dropped his head back down. I told him that I didn't see a tail and pitchfork, so I didn't think he was evil.
When he looked back up he said, "Two years ago, I got suspended for being in a food fight in the cafeteria. Nobody talked to me the whole time."
I said, "And nobody talked to you because you were a bad person." Justin shook his head yes. A tear dropped onto his hoodie.
I said, "And bad people make bad decisions and do bad things, like pushing old ladies and spitting on babies, right?" Again, he nodded his head yes. In the eyes of the teachers in the room, Justin went from being an awful person to a kid who thought he was a bad person who happened to do something awful.
Justin looked at the principal and asked if he knew how the old lady was. When the principal told him no, Justin waited a beat and then apologized to the principal.
We talked about all of the other possible and frightening consequences that could have happened, including his being arrested and someone being critically injured. Justin wanted to know what he could do to make things right, including finding the elderly woman he knocked down to apologize. He led the conversation around ways he could take responsibility, be accountable, and restore the harm he had done.
Justin, in addition to dealing with challenging family dynamics, had also carried the pain and shame of being thought of as "bad" such that he felt shunned for two years. School staff had become used to dealing with what he did (the behavior), rather than who he was (the person).
Shifting to a restorative mindset requires adults to let go of fixed ideas about a student's behavior. It compels adults to give young people a safe, judgment free space where they can process acts of harm they themselves may not fully comprehend.
For young men of color, emotional vulnerability often carries both social stigma and physical risk. If we view events though a wide lens of empathy and compassionate understanding, we can provide young people with meaningful opportunities to develop skills and support a second chance (or chances) to feel remorse, accept responsibility, and become accountable.